Hi. I have always found Purim to be an incredibly “noisy” day. It’s so easy to become distracted by everything that needs to get done! I’m wondering if you have any practical advice as to how to truly experience the joy and spirituality of Purim. Thank you!
Thank you so much for this important question! I think this is a very common experience that so many of us feel – you are definitely not alone. Ashrecha that in this busy period of Purim prep, you are thinking about how to best access the inner light of this remarkable day – this is already an admirable achievement!
I have been thinking about this a lot recently, especially this year, as life has become a bit more hectic (as it has been known to do, b”H), and I have found the following construct to be helpful – both as a path toward a meaningful Purim experience, as well as a more general approach to meaningful living. Allow me to begin with a bit of an introduction.
In the mid-1900’s, scientific research was being widely conducted in the United States into the potential therapeutic benefits of a class of psychoactive, hallucinogenic plant medicines which became colloquially known as “psychedelics”. While the initial tests produced remarkable results in treating people suffering from addiction, trauma, depression, and other mental and emotional conditions, a variety of factors beyond the scope of our discussion led to these psychedelics (substances like LSD, Psilocybn, and DMT) being classified as illegal drugs in the late 1960’s, after which research on their applications in the therapeutic context was largely discontinued. (Over the last few years, there has been a renewed interest in these substances as therapeutic medicines, and research has resumed with similarly encouraging results.)
What is relevant for this discussion is a particular feature of the psychedelic experience that confounded the first wave of researchers: the phenomenon of “bad trips”. While many people experienced extremely positive (and in some cases, life-changing) sensations after ingested these substances, heavenly sensations like bliss, freedom from limitations, ego-nullification, overwhelming love of everything, and perception of the oneness of existence, there were others who “descended into hell”, encountering terrifying sensations like acute anxiety and feelings of panic, despair, horror, and confusion.
The scientists wondered why different people were having such different reactions to the same substances. Was it arbitrary? Or was there something that could be done to ensure a positive experience?
After a number of visits to observe and participate in mushroom ceremonies in Mexico, an early explorer and proponent of psychedelic substances, a man by the name of Al Hubbard, solved the mystery. He discovered that there were two crucial factors to the nature of an experience with psychedelics; the mindset of the person going into the experience, and the physical and social environment in which the experience takes place. Over the years, a succinct pair of terms for these factors was developed by Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy and then popularized by Harvard psychologist-turned-countercultural icon Timothy Leary: “set and setting”. The word “set” refers to the mindset of the person ingesting the substance, and the word “setting” refers to the environment in which the substance is ingested.
While the phrase “set and setting” is usually used only in the hyper-specific context of the therapeutic and recreational experience of psychoactive substances, it seems that the significance of the factors they represent is far broader than this particular application alone. It may be argued that these two factors – our mindset and physical/social environment – are the two most important variables in any experience, whether experienced in an altered or regular state of consciousness. Knowledge of these two factors are always accurate predictors of how positively or negatively an experience will affect us, and this applies to something as banal as a walk through the park as well as, and here we come to the point, something as exalted as a spiritual experience.
Returning to Purim and the attempt to maximize the awesome elevation available to us, “set and setting” are absolutely critical to our success.
“Set”: it is important to develop a mindset conducive to receptivity before Purim arrives. Preparing our hearts and minds for this glorious day is accomplished by learning about its spiritual significance, learning seforim, reading books, or listening to shiurim that grant us a deeper understanding – through the lens of penimiyus haTorah – of what Purim is, what messages it embodies, what lofty illuminations it awakens in the heavenly realms, and what it helps us to reveal from within the depth of our souls. (The Berditchover Rav – see Kedushas Levi, Mishpatim, “Vayavo Moshe” – teaches that when Jews are given access to the “taam“, the deeper reasons for a mitzvah, they are able to experience a “taam“, a taste, of the mitzvah’s sweetness, relevance, and depth.)
“Setting”: After we have worked on developing the proper mindset, it is equally crucial that we make an effort to surround ourselves on Purim with like-minded, growth-oriented individuals. (See Rambam, Hilchos Dei’os 6:1 for the extent to which our surroundings impact spiritual striving) It’s important to seek to be around people who are similarly intent on using Purim not simply as a day on which we commemorate a miracle that occurred thousands of years ago or as an excuse to get drunk and act silly, but as a portal to a great spiritual breakthrough, a window through which – aided by the effects of the wine – to catch a glimpse of the heaven beyond, the heaven around, the heaven within. If, for some reason or another, we are not able to experience our Purim seudah with such individuals, we can prepare our setting by resolving to spend time alone on Purim – to break away from the communal or familial festivities for a while and sit with a Tehillim, a Likutei Tefillos, or a sefer from a tzaddik we feel particularly connected to, or to call a rebbe, a mentor, or a like-minded friend, and in that way access a higher state.
If we can get these two factors right – the “set” with which we go into Purim, and the “setting” of Purim itself – we will be able, with Hashem’s help, to enjoy the awesome revelation of Purim in its fullest and most exalted expression, walking out of Purim with a treasure-trove of spiritual gems that will light the path to Pesach – an experience to which the centrality of “set and setting” similarly applies.
I hope this is helpful in some way, and I wish you the most beautiful and illuminated Purim up ahead!