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Purim And Yom Kippur: An Odd Couple?


On their face, there could not be two more unlikely holidays to wed than Yom Kippur and Purim. Even the youngest child knows that Purim is a holiday meant for fun and celebration, for costumes and parties. Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar, calling on us engage in deep, somber introspection as we search for forgiveness and atonement. How different they are!

Yet the ba’alei haKabalah sought mystical associations between the two holidays, pointing out that the initial kaf in kippurim indicates that Yom Kippurim is a “day like Purim.”

Likewise, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, seeking deeply intertwined meanings between the two, divined that it is only the most superficial aspects of the holidays that diverge. On an important level, they are very similar: “Perhaps the feature common to both Purim and Yom Kippur is that aspect of Purim which is a call for Divine compassion and intercession, a mood of petition arising out of great distress.”

Of course, if our dependence upon God and our need for reconciliation were the only commonality, then it would be a trivial one. After all, nearly all things of meaningful human worth intersect at our dependence upon God and our need for reconciliation. So it is not this obvious connection that moves the Rav, it is the second similarity between Purim and Yom Kippurim that brings their association into clearer focus – they both “involve the casting of lots (goral), charactistic of games of chance. As for the Purim goral, it determined the date chosen by Haman for the destruction of the Jews.”

The goral of the Yom Kippur Temple service had a different character but our fate was no less determined by the “chance” of the goral. On Yom Kippur, two male goats identical in appearance, size, and value were brought, one marked “unto the Lord,” and the other hurled to its death. The decision as to which would live and which would die was left to the fateful casting of lots. Rashi’s description of the process is both dramatic and terrifying.

He placed one goat at his right and other at his left. He then put both his hands into an urn and took one lot in his right hand and the other in his left. These he placed on them. The goat upon which fell the lot bearing the inscription Lashem was for the Lord, and that bearing for Azazel was later sent forth to Azazel. [Rashi, Leviticus 16:8]

Such drama! Such uncertainty! All the more so because the fate of the people rested on the result. But why lots? Why a game of chance to determine our fate? Could not the Lord have simply decided and made it so?

Of course. But the certainty of God’s power stands in stark contrast to the fundamental truth of our condition in this world – and the reason that chance plays such a vital role in both these holidays.

The pur, the goral of Purim and the casting of lots on Yom Kippur both speak to man’s basic condition of vulnerability, insecurity, and fickleness. A cursory reading of the megillah would find that the entire Purim narrative is defined by chance, unreasonable, absurd, and irrational events. One day Jews are secure in Persia; the next they face annihilation. One day Mordechai faces execution; the next he is prime minister. Haman’s conspiracy against the Jews arises from nowhere, it is as fickle and uncertain as the lots he draws to determine when to carry out his horrible intent.

“Purim, therefore,” the Rav explains, “epitomizes the instability, uncertainty, and vul­nerability which characterize human life generally but particularly govern the destiny of the Jews…. It alerts the Jew to the sudden turns of fortune, lurking dangers, the fickleness of life, even as the goral itself seems to operate through blind chance.”

Despite our search for answers, we are often faced with no sensible answer. Why does man sin? Why do two brothers, twins perhaps, mature to be so different – one a tzaddik, the other a rasha? What combination of temptations, lures of intoxicating pleasures, appeals of political and social ideologies, home background, moral strength or weakness, changing fortunes, pressing circumstances and, yes, chance, play out in our lives?

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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