Judaism teaches that the human being is comprised of two components – body and soul. Our bodies are physical, and our souls are spiritual. The body comes from the earth, and the soul comes from the heaven. The Torah makes this very clear in describing the way Adam – the first human being – was created. It says that the body was made from earth taken from the ground, and the soul was “blown” into the body by Gd.
Jewish life could be described as a “balancing act” of sorts between these two. We are to focus on the soul, but without neglecting the body. We nurture the soul by studying Torah and performing mitzvot, which can be done only if our bodies are intact, strong, and healthy. And thus we are expected, and required, to tend to our bodies, but to focus our attention on the soul.
This “balancing act” is discussed by the Talmud in reference to the observance of our Yamim Tovim (holidays). In Masechet Pesahim, the Gemara cites two verses that appear to give opposite prescriptions for how our joyous festivals are to observed. One verse describes the holidays with the word “lachem – for you,” implying that they are given to us to enjoy, through feasting. But another verse defines the Yom Tov observance as “l’Hashem Elokecha” – geared towards Gd, suggesting that they are to be devoted to spiritual matters, specifically, prayer and study. The Gemara cites Rabbi Yehoshua as reconciling these verses by explaining that Yom Tov is to be observed as a day of both feasting and spiritual devotion. We are to spend part of the day praying and learning, and part of the day enjoying fine food and beverages.
This is true not only of Yom Tov, but of Jewish life generally. Gd wants us to tend to both our bodies and our souls. We are to enjoy the physical delights of the world, but within the framework of religious devotion, focusing our attention on faithfully serving our Creator.
Connecting Polar Opposites
There are, however, two days on the Jewish calendar when this balance is disrupted – and dramatically so.
One is a holiday which we celebrate this month – Purim, which, we might say, breaks all the rules. On Purim, we focus almost entirely on the body. We spend the day exchanging gifts of food, eating, and drinking to the point of (moderate) inebriation. Even the synagogue is different on Purim. People come in costume, and in a merry, jovial mood. On Purim, the body-soul scale is tilted decidedly towards the body.
Just about seven months later, we reach the opposite extreme, with the observance of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we go to the opposite extreme, refraining as much as possible from any kind of physical engagement. We neglect all our physical needs to the extent that we can without endangering our wellbeing, focusing exclusively on the spirit, spending the day in the synagogue praying, reflecting, introspecting, crying, begging, pleading, and reaching higher.
Neither Purim nor Yom Kippur represents the norm of Jewish life, which, as mentioned, is characterized by a delicate balance between body and soul. On Purim we focus almost exclusively on the former; on Yom Kippur, we focus almost exclusively on the latter.
This is what makes a famous passage in the Zohar Hadash so puzzling, and so mysterious. The Zohar Hadash comments that the Torah refers to Yom Kippur as “Yom Kippurim” because it is “yom ke-Purim” – “a day like Purim.” That is to say, according to Kabbalistic teaching – Yom Kippur is like Purim!!!
Yom Kippur is like Purim?
How can two polar opposite occasions possibly be compared to one another? How did the Zohar take the two most drastically different days on the Jewish calendar and say that one is like the other? What can this mean?
Two Halves of the Same Day
The Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797) found the answer to this mystery in the Gemara’s comment cited above, regarding the nature of the Yom Tov observance.
As we saw, the Gemara’s prescription for Yom Tov is a combination of physical indulgence and spiritual devotion. Half the day is to be spent feasting, and the other half is to be spent praying and learning. The Gaon asks a simple question about this prescription: What about Purim and Yom Kippur? How do we get away with feasting all day Purim, and fasting and praying all day Yom Kippur? If a Jewish holiday is characterized by a combination of physical and spiritual engagement, nourishing both the body and the soul, then why do we engage almost entirely in physicality on Purim, and almost entirely in spirituality on Yom Kippur?
The Gaon’s answer is both simple and profound. He explained that Purim and Yom Kippur are, in fact, two parts of a whole. They are two halves of a single holiday.
Most holidays, of course, are contiguous, observed on one day or over a period of consecutive days. Purim and Yom Kippur, according to the Gaon of Vilna, are unique. They form a single holiday, separated by seven months. Half of this holiday – the Purim half – is spent feasting, and the other half – the Yom Kippur half – is devoted to spirituality.
This teaching of the Gaon of Vilna needs to be further developed. What exactly is this Purim/Yom Kippur holiday? A holiday needs a consistent theme that runs through and brings together all its various aspects. What connection is there between the celebration of Haman’s downfall on Purim and our prayers for forgiveness as we stand in judgment on Yom Kippur? How are these two occasions part of the same holiday? What is the exact nature of this unique holiday?
Internal and External Pressures
A beautiful explanation of this concept is offered by Rav Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) – one which can profoundly enhance our appreciation of the special day of Purim.
The background to his explanation is a fascinating passage in Masechet Shabbat that tells of a conversation that will ensue between Gd and our patriarch, Yitzhak, in the future. Gd will approach Yitzhak and report that his descendants have been unfaithful to Gd, violating His laws, and thus deserve severe punishment. Yitzhak will immediately jump to our nation’s defense, and plead with the Almighty to forgive us. Like a bankruptcy lawyer negotiating with a bank on his client’s behalf, Yitzhak will offer a bold “deal.” He will say, “Palga alai ufalga alecha” – which means, “I’ll take half, and You’ll take half.” Yitzhak offered to take personal responsibility for half of the Jewish People’s sins, and then pleaded to Gd to forgive the other half.
How does Yitzhak take responsibility for the Jewish People’s sins? What does this even mean? How can he assume responsibility for our wrongdoing? And why should Gd forgive the other half?
The answer, as Rav Hutner cites in the name of Rav Yitzchak Blazer, the famous rabbi of St. Petersburg (1837-1907), is based on yet another Talmudic passage, in Masechet Berachot. The Gemara there records various supplications which different sages would recite upon completing the formal Amidah prayer each day. One sage, Rabbi Alexandri, would offer the following petition to Gd:
“Master of the worlds! It is revealed and known before You that our will is to fulfill Your will, but what stops us? The ‘yeast in the batter’ and the ‘subjugation of the kingdoms.’ May it be the will before You that You save us from them, so we again wholeheartedly observe the statutes which You willed.”
Rabbi Alexandri here reveals a powerful truth about each and every Jew: our innermost desire is to serve Gd. At our core, we are devoted to Gd and firmly and passionately committed to fulfilling His will. “Retzonenu laasot retzonecha – Our will is to fulfill Your will.” But there are two reasons why we often fail to fulfill our religious obligations: the “yeast in the batter,” and the “subjugation of the kingdoms.” The phrase “yeast in the better” is a euphemistic reference to the evil inclination, our sinful impulses. Just as yeast transforms a batter into something bearing no resemblance to its origins, our evil inclination has a way of making us look so very different from who we really are. Natural human vices such as greed, jealousy, lust, impatience, arrogance, anxiety, and anger are the “yeast” that makes us act in ways that do not in any way reflect our true inner goodness and purity. The second obstacle we must overcome in our quest to serve Gd is “the subjugation of the kingdoms” – our living under the influence and pressure of a foreign culture. We Jews comprise a minuscule minority, and no matter how hard we try – especially in the modern era – we are overwhelmed by foreign influence. It is so difficult to strictly adhere to the Torah’s beliefs, ideals, principles and lifestyle when everyone around us isn’t.
These are the two factors that make it difficult for our inner essence to shine forth – our internal tendencies, and external pressures. We, like Rabbi Alexandri, must pray to Gd each day to save us from these powerful forces, to give us the help we so desperately need as we struggle against ourselves and against foreign influence so we can serve Gd the way we truly want to.
Rav Blazer explained on this basis Yitzhak’s mysterious “deal” with Gd.
Yitzhak was defending his descendants, arguing that they should not be held fully accountable for our wrongful conduct. Our sins are the result of their evil inclination, with which Gd created us, and of the influence of the foreign nations – primarily of Esav, the son of Yizhak. And so Yitzhak turned to Gd and argued that they – he and Gd – together bear ultimate responsibility for the Jewish People’s wrongdoing. Gd will “take the blame,” so-to-speak, for sins resulting from our sinful impulses which He implanted within us, and Yitzhak will “take the blame” for the sins resulting from the overpowering pressure imposed by the nations who descended from his child, Esav.
Two Days of Perfection
If so, Rav Hutner explained, then we can understand the meaning of the “Purim/Yom Kippur” holiday.
The Gemara in Masechet Yoma observes that the word “haSatan” (“the Satan”) in gematria (the system of numerical values assigned to Hebrew letters) equals 364 – one less the number of days in the year. The reason, the Gemara explains, is because the Satan is given the power to try to mislead, tempt, and lure us 364 days a year. On one day a year, Yom Kippur, the Satan is powerless against us. We know this from personal experience. Have we ever felt an impulse to sin on Yom Kippur? Have we ever gotten into a fight on Yom Kippur? On Yom Kippur, we are free from the Satan’s trap, and so we soar to the greatest heights. We spend hours in the synagogue and spend the day in an aura of intensive reflection, disengaged entirely from our ordinary human vices. The Yom Kippur experience, Rav Hutner said, shows what we can become when we are freed from the “yeast,” from the evil inclination. When the Satan leaves us alone, our true inner essence can shine, and we become pure, pristine beings.
On Purim, we were freed from the “subjugation of the kingdoms” – from the pressure of foreign nations. As the Megillah describes, after Haman’s downfall and Mordechai’s appointment as vizier in his place, the Jews were instantly transformed from the Persian kingdom’s condemned outcasts, to their most respected sector. So much so, the Megillah says, that many Persians sought to convert to Judaism, out of fear and respect for the Jewish Nation. And how did the Jews respond to this sudden change of status? The Gemara says that in the wake of the Purim miracle, the Jews collectively and formally reaffirmed their acceptance of the Torah. Whereas at Mount Sinai the Torah was forced upon them, after the Purim miracle they announced their commitment of their own accord, voluntarily, enthusiastically, and wholeheartedly. They exchanged gifts with one another, and generously distributed charity to the needy. They feasted heartily, giving joyful and soulful praise to Gd. All this, of course, is the way we celebrate Purim, too, each and every year. Purim, then, shows what we can become once we are freed from the “subjugation of kingdoms,” from foreign pressures and influences. Once we defeat Haman, a scion of Amalek – a nation that descended from Esav – we shine. We excel. We achieve. We become the great people that we were chosen to be, that we are capable of being, and that we are expected to be.
This, Rav Hutner explained, is the meaning of “Yom ke-Purim” – the notion that Purim and Yom Kippur are two halves of a single holiday. Together, they celebrate and show us our true essence, our inner core, our fundamental nature, our real selves, who we are capable of becoming. Throughout the rest of the year, when we live under the pressure of our natural vices and foreign influence, we might forget just how good we really are, how much potential we really have. On Purim and Yom Kippur, we show that “retzonenu laasot retzonecha – our will is to fulfill Your will,” that deep within our hearts, even if this is not always apparent in the way we conduct ourselves the rest of the year, we are firmly committed to Gd.
Behind the Masks
The words “Megillat Ester” can be understood to mean “revealing the hidden.” One of the themes of Purim is concealment, the contrast between appearance and reality. On one level, this theme relates to Providence – even when it seems as though Gd is not present in the world, and events unfold randomly, His really is here, micromanaging every detail of the world, behind the “mask” of the natural order. The bizarre, unlikely sequence of events that resulted in the Purim miracle reveals for us the hidden Hand of Gd in the world.
Additionally, however, the Purim story – and its annual celebration – reveals our own hidden essence. It shows what we can become once we eliminate external pressure, how we joyfully celebrate our Jewishness, our connection to Gd, and our relationship to our fellow Jew. Freed from foreign influence, we display an outpouring of joy, of love for Gd and love for one another – feelings which are always present within us, but are too often concealed and hidden.
Purim is a precious opportunity for us to reveal what lies behind the “masks” that we wear all year, to discover just how great we can become, what immense potential we have. This is the special joy and excitement of Purim. There is nothing more joyful and exciting than discovering that we are so much more than we thought we were, that we have capabilities that we never realized we had.
Please Gd, we will all be inspired and driven by this wondrous experience to tap into our vast potential, and to work to become the outstanding people that we are meant to be, amen.