The Talmud says that every Shabbat and Jewish holiday is "half spiritual, half physical." We spend part of the day praying in synagogue (the spiritual), and the rest of the day eating a fine meal and relaxing at home (the physical).
True spirituality is not achieved by meditating alone on a mountaintop, or by taking vows of abstinence in a remote monastery. Jewish spirituality comes through grappling with the mundane world in a way that uplifts and elevates. That's why yeshivas are always located near town and the bustle of commercial activity.
Jewish consciousness says: Don’t retreat from life; elevate it. On Friday night, we raise the cup of wine to make Kiddush and sanctify the Sabbath day. Spirituality, says Judaism, is to be found everywhere from the boardroom to the bedroom.
Greater Than Yom Kippur
One exception to this rule is Yom Kippur, when both halves are spiritual: We spend our entire day praying in synagogue, with no food, no marital relations, and not even the comfort of leather shoes on our feet.
The second exception is Purim, when both halves are physical: We feast, visit friends, dress up in costumes, and drink to excess.
The Vilna Gaon (18th century Lithuania) explains that the word "Purim" is found in the biblical name for Yom Kippur – Yom haki-PURIM – which means “a day like Purim.” That which we accomplish on Yom Kippur with spiritual pursuits, we accomplish on Purim with physical pursuits. These holidays are two sides of the same coin, two opposite halves of the same day.
Interestingly, we see the balance of half-physical/half-spiritual also reflected in the preparations for each of these holidays. On Yom Kippur, we prepare for the fast by having a feast the day before. On Purim, we prepare for the feast by fasting (Taanit Esther) the day before.
At first glance, we would assume that Yom Kippur is the greater of the two days. But in one sense, Purim is even greater: It is easier to achieve spiritual elevation on a day like Yom Kippur, when we pray and have no time for forbidden activities like gossip or getting angry. By fasting, the soul achieves dominance over the body.
But on Purim, in our state of rambunctious inebriation, it is much harder to maintain our human dignity. As Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov writes: "If one attains holiness through affliction, and another attains holiness through indulgence, who is the greater of the two? It may be said that the one who attains holiness through indulgence is greater, for the attainment of holiness through indulgence requires an infinitely greater degree of striving and effort."
In this way, the challenge of Purim is greater. That’s why, by comparison, Yom hakiPurim is only "a day like Purim."
Garden of Eden
According to Jewish thought, the only people to see the world in a state of perfection were Adam and Eve, who lived in the paradise of Eden. Yet they fell from that state by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That is, they pursued the world of illusion, where the transcendent universal good is masked by the seeming imperfection of evil.
If we approach Purim correctly – reaching a drunken state of no longer knowing good from evil – we actually realign our perspective by seeing the Transcendent as the source of all physical reality, thereby revealing its hidden perfection. Thus Purim at its peak is a taste of Eden.
The potential for spiritual elevation on Purim is tremendous. As we're drinking and partying, let’s keep this in mind and not let the opportunity fly by.