"A short summary of every Jewish holiday: They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat." So quipped the comedian Alan King -- and it certainly seems like Purim was right at the forefront of his mind. Haman sought to annihilate the Jewish people, the Divine puppeteer then pulled a few magical strings behind the scenes, and the turnabout was no less than spectacular: our nefarious adversary was hanged, we killed many a foe, and we had one of our own second in command over the entire kingdom.
There was, of course, great reason to celebrate -- and Purim calls for festive culinary feasts, with plenty of wine and -- very atypically -- Jewish intoxication. We even throw in our version of a masquerade ball! And all this is considered a mitzvah!
Is this really the choice way to celebrate? Better yet, is this the Jewish way to celebrate?
Purim at the Pinnacle
Lest we think that these Purim festivities pale in comparison to the sanctity of our holy Yom Kippur, the lofty Day of Atonement, the famed Arizal, based on the chief mystical text, the Zohar, reminds us that it is actually just the opposite. The culmination of the High Holy Days is referred to as "Yom HaKippurim," the day that is merely like> Purim (kiPurim), highlighting the fact that it is Purim that sits atop the pedestal of Jewish holidays. We can divorce ourselves from physical pleasures and spend most of the day engrossed in fervent angelic prayer, and yet we are taught that all that abstention and hard work of a Yom Kippur is second-tier to the most joyous Purim.
Are we missing something here?
The Yom Kippur/Purim Contrast
Yom Kippur is crucial. One day a year we must lift ourselves out of our mundane surroundings, above the seductive pleasures of the physical world. Without the annual Day of Atonement, a day focused on serious introspection, sincere repentance, and striving to more closely resemble God's celestial court, we would most likely suffocate spiritually from our complacent air of constant self-gratification. Yom Kippur serves as a much needed wake-up call to stir us to heed our true, spiritual calling and mission in life.
But we simply cannot live on such a plateau throughout the hustle and bustle of our daily lifestyles, clutched constantly in the grips of our careers, family life, and the pervasive physical needs we all share. Yom Kippur provides us with a taste of a far greater perception of the world around us; a sweet taste yes, but an extremely difficult one to savor long-term once we come back down from our angel-like state and are forced to face our humanity once again.
Purim arrives and we encounter the opposite side of the Yom Kippur/Purim coin. Go ahead: have a drink. And another one or three… Enjoy the sumptuous feast. In other words, be human -- and be a real part of this physical world with the mundane delicacies it has to offer. But through it all, let the real you come out.
On Purim we learn to tap into the joy of the miracles of the day, the exhilaration experienced by those Jews years ago who witnessed God's hidden hand securing for His people a miraculous reversal of fate. We look around in the world and find it difficult, at times, to see the constant intervention of God on our behalf, to rid Mother Nature of her camouflage and manifest the Divine Presence which produced, and is presently directing, her wonderful performance: every act, every scene, every second of the day.
Come Purim time, we take a very active part in worldly pleasures as we try, once again, to realize that the physical world around us, with all its apparent coincidences, is but a mere facade hiding myriad miracles. We become intoxicated primarily as a means of revealing the true, hidden self that lies beneath the protective veneers we've tried to erect. The real me (hopefully only the holy side) will be unleashed as the alcohol sets in, all while the Purim masks and costumes shield our outer appearance, the part that can never really express our true selves.
If Purim reveals to us Who is really behind the scenes of the world's stage, then we owe it to ourselves to reveal the true person dwelling within our outer beings as well. And this we can certainly take with us for the rest of the year.
Back to the Garden of Eden
This Yom Kippur/Purim dichotomy is alluded to at the beginning of Genesis. Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden, surrounded by unmatched beauty. They are seemingly given but one command, not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.
As several commentaries point out, however, there was, in fact, yet an additional command: "From all the trees in the garden you shall eat" (Genesis, 2:16). Not just granting permission -- an actual command, rather, to enjoy the magnificent delicacies placed before them. This mitzvah is the source for the intriguing statement of the Jerusalem Talmud: "In the future we will all have to answer to God for all that our eyes saw [in His world, with all it has to offer] and did not partake of" (Tractate Kiddushin, 4:12, commentary of the Meshech Chochma).
As we all know, Adam and Eve failed to heed the command to abstain from the Tree of Knowledge. But they also failed to regard the positive instruction of eating from all other trees as an actual mitzvah. Perhaps we can suggest that God's precious gift to us of the double-sided coin of Yom HaKippurim and Purim provides us with the opportunity to atone for those two grave errors.
On Yom Kippur we learn how to refrain from food and drink, in addition to other mundane delights. There is a time and a place for everything, we learn and try our utmost to apply, and certain things are indeed off limits. We elevate ourselves to become like spiritual Adam in the Garden of Eden, and attempt to rectify his grave error of disobeying God's command. Simply put, it's a time for transcending the physical world around us.
We flip to the other side of the coin and find Purim, a day providing us with an opportunity to expiate for the sin of disobeying God's positive command to partake of all the other magnificent trees. On Purim we are credited with mitzvahs for eating a festive meal and drinking plenty of wine. God made us human with human needs and desires, but our attitude must be that we do our best to partake and enjoy, to consume and imbibe, because that is also the will of God. Enjoy His world and its delightful treasures. But only if you recognize Who the source of it all is, and that God gave mortal man these gifts as a means of getting close to Him through His physical world as well.