An organization my husband works with was having its annual meeting in New Orleans. “I’ve always wanted to see New Orleans,” I chimed in excitedly. “Please take me with you.” Accommodating as always, he agreed. We made our plans, booked our flights and hotels and, with the help of our guide book, tried to determine which plantations and local attractions to visit.

Little did we realize that we were arriving right before Mardi Gras. We’d heard rumors about the scene that awaited us but nothing could have quite prepared us for the reality. Luckily we were forewarned to stay off Bourbon Street and so we missed some of the more “inappropriate” street scenes.

We are able to find a taxi to take us a roundabout way to the kosher restaurant near Tulane for lunch, but by the time we finished the parades were all in full swing so we had to walk 2-1/2 hours back to our hotel – along the parade route.

There were over 100 decorated flatbed trucks in this one parade of many that took place both that day and the evening before. Each was playing loud music and tossing plastic necklaces to the passersby (I still haven’t figured out their significance). Down the center of the street was row after row of local residents with their portable barbecues and coolers, drinking, grilling, drinking and eating all afternoon. And alongside the “floats” marched thousands of revelers – in costume and drink(s) in hand. It was an experience.

As I was observing all the drinking and all the costumes I started thinking about an approaching holiday of our own that also involves drinking and costumes (but hopefully not “inappropriate” street scenes!). How do they differ?

I think I can boil it down to one simple idea – one is a celebration for the body and the other is a celebration for the soul. One is meant to indulge the excesses of our physical selves, the other is meant to highlight the deeper significance of our spiritual selves.

Mardi Gras is like the last hurrah before the abstinence of Lent. It’s like binging on cake and cookies the day before we begin our diets. It’s all about our physical selves.

Purim on the other hand is focused on our soul and our relationship with God. We use drinking and costumes to reveal the Almighty’s presence in the world not to cover it up, to “unmask” it so to speak.

Although Mardi Gras is connected to a religious event, God seemed somewhat absent from the revelry of the streets. It is possible to make that mistake on Purim also, to lose ourselves in the fun of the costumes and in drunkenness and to totally miss the point of the day.

But if we remain focused on the goals of the holiday, something very different occurs. We drink just enough (and not more!) to pull back the curtains and see the reality of the Almighty’s presence in the world, to perceive with an unusual clarity that everything that happens – the good and the seemingly bad – is one, is a reflection of the Almighty’s will, is (as my teenagers say) “all good.”

Our costumes add to this experience. They permit us to make ourselves vulnerable – to each other and to a relationship with God. We are freed to contemplate the spiritual world without embarrassment or shame or fear of rejection. It’s a very powerful experience.

Drinking and costumes are just tools; they are not the essence of the day. They are a strategy to help us discover the fundamental meaning of the holiday. Like any tools, they can be used well and appropriately or not. It’s up to us – whether we focus on our bodies or our souls, whether we celebrate something that is more like Mardi Gras or more like Purim.