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.
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.