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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?

These complex and compelling variables do nothing so much as cry out our utter vulnerability; our foolish and wicked behavior in response to them acknowledged by God while at the same time forgiven by Him.

“It is because of this,” says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “that man can stand before the Heavenly Bar of Justice, hoping for compassion and forgiveness. Despite his free will and accountability for his deeds, man enters his plea before the Almighty, claiming that he is not the author and designer of the worldly pleasures that were too powerful for him to resist.”

The lures of our physical world are all part of the goral that is the dynamic of our existence.

Is it not the purpose of Yom Kippurim for us to come face to face with our fallibility in the face of this goral? Like Purim, Yom Kippurim engages the big goral. The unknowns – the fickleness and irrationality of life that play out on a communal level in the Purim narrative – do the same in the everyday lives of each man, compelling us to seek God’s compassion and forgiveness on Yom Kippur.

Each and every day, we live personal “Purims” in which tumult, confusion, uncertainty, danger and temptation toss and turn us; every night is Yom Kippur, a time when our regret, sorrow, insecurity, need for understanding, sensitivity, compassion, and forgiveness bring us to our knees before God.

All of which speaks to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s insight into the similarity between the two holy days. But what about the mystics’ statement that Purim k’Purim, that Purim is a day like Yom Kippur? Did they mean that Yom Kippur is similar to Purim? Or are Yom Kippur and Purim one and the same?

The Gaon of Vilna taught that there are two exceptions to the principle that every Yom Tov is chatzi la’Shem v’chatzi lachem – devoted by halves both to God and to our pleasures and enjoyment. The exceptions, he said, are Yom Kippur, devoted exclusively to matters of God and spirit, and Purim, devoted primarily to physical pleasures.

Mah Nishtanah?

On all other holidays we observe mitzvot commanded by God while at the same time we eat festive meals, make Kiddush, dress beautifully, and share worldly pleasures. But Yom Kippur is all spirit and Purim is all pleasure. No chatzi v’chatzi.

These days, the Gaon teaches, Purim k’Purim – are in reality two halves of a single day.

In Judaism, it is impossible for spirit to exist apart from the flesh or for flesh to exist without spirit. There can be no gashmiut without ruchniut; the two must be integrated and synthesized. So, I believe, the Gaon is suggesting these days need each other. Purim is the flesh on the soul of Yom Kippur. Purim is the gashmiut. Yom Kippur is the ruchniut.

There is an important lesson in the Gaon’s teaching. There are Jews who live a “Yom Kippur” existence, remaining removed from worldly affairs. They eat minimally lest the food not be sufficiently kosher. They drink little lest they become intoxicated. For them, every night is Kol Nidre. They sleep in their kitel and wake with their brows furrowed with regret. They take little pleasure from God’s world, the world God created and declared to be good.

On the other hand, there are the all-year-round Purim Jews; Jews who constantly drown out the soul’s demands and expectations with the noise of their internal groggers. They live in their festive masks, unwilling and unable to see themselves for who they really are.

These Jews – Yom Kippur Jews and Purim Jews – are each incomplete; halves of an incomplete whole.

Judaism teaches that we worship God with joy - ivdu et Hashem b’simcha. Judaism embraces optimism and hope even in the midst of Yom Kippur. Likewise, Judaism ushers in the delight of Purim with the serenity of the Fast of Esther. Judaism teaches that Yom Kippur begins on the ninth of Tishrei with a banquet of food and drink. It concludes with putting the first nail to the building of the sukkah and commencing the holiday of simchateinu, our joy.

Judaism seeks a of balance between joy and serenity, between physical pleasure and spiritual eternity. One cannot truly exist without the other.

Our lives are spent careening between the two. We live in a world of fragile physical relationships, a world in which no moment of joy lights our lives without a memory of sadness. Personal happiness flickers against the backdrop of universal tragedy. While standing under the wedding chuppah, where so much joy, hope and love are anticipated, the groom’s head is covered with ashes symbolic of grief, destruction, and mourning. At the conclusion of the public wedding ceremony, the apotheosis of personal joy, the groom shatters a glass to signal our eternal mourning of the destruction of the Holy Temple.

Like the bride and groom, Purim and Kippurim stand under a single canopy. They are a union of smiles and tears, memories and hopes, anxieties and cheers, body and soul, tuxedo and kitel.They are the bride and groom who, after all, fast and recite al chet – performing their own, personal Yom Kippur in the midst of their personal Purim.

Joy and sorrow. Spirit and flesh. Man and Woman. Purim and Yom Kippurim. All are wedded under the chupah.

The Kotzker Rebbe, in speaking of his son-in-law, the Avnei Nezer, taught his students, “Do you know why the rav of Beila, the Avnei Nezer’s father, merited to have such a son? It happened on a Purim when all the scholarly and righteous Jews were so deeply involved and engrossed in the Purim seudah, that there wasn’t one Jew anywhere in the entire world learning Torah that hour, except the rav of Beila. This was taken note of in the Heavens, where it was pointed out that if not for him the entire world would have been void of Torah that hour. Therefore, he was rewarded with a son who would shine the world with his Torah holiness.”

A Purim devoid of Torah? A Yom Kippur devoid of joy? Heaven forbid! Purim k’Purim means recognizing Kippurim consequences on Purim and sensing Purim emotions on Kippurim.

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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