Essay: Yom Kippur turned upside down

Purim is a festival that masquerades as a masquerade.

purim 2 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
purim 2 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Pity poor Purim. It has become the Jewish mardi gras, a day of masquerades and carnivals. The spirituality that is supposed to envelop every Jewish festival has been buried underneath a huge volume of spirits. Even the holy Talmud (Megila 7b) adds to the Purim enigma with its strange directive that on Purim a Jew should drink ad delo yada - until "he knows not the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai." Ours is a tradition that abhors drunkenness, and yet the Talmud - so it seems - instructs us to get intoxicated on Purim. Clearly, this odd holiday requires a second look. Everyone knows the story: Queen Esther and Mordecai, the evil Haman, King Ahasuerus and his dethroned Queen Vashti, the miraculous victory of the Jews against enemies bent on slaughter. But not everyone knows that there is more to Purim than meets the eye. In fact, most of Purim does not meet the eye. Purim wears a mask of its own; it masquerades as a masquerade. It is in fact the holiday in hiding, and it challenges us to unmask it and reveal the sanctity behind the facade. As you examine Purim carefully, you gradually come to realize that the entire Purim narrative is a study in concealment. Esther herself is Exhibit A. Her name derives from the root str - to hide. The name Esther is prefigured in the Torah itself when God says: "I will surely hide my face from you..." (Deut. 31:18). Not only does the name of Esther connote "hidden"; she herself is very hidden. No one except Mordecai knows who she really is or where she comes from. Even King Ahasuerus is kept in the dark. "Esther did not reveal her origins..." says the Book of Esther (2:20).Thus is the theme of Purim set: Nothing is revealed, all is hidden. And the chief actor in the story - God - remains completely hidden throughout. Purim, after all, celebrates a miraculous redemption of the Jews. A miracle suggests divine intercession. But search the Purim Megila from end to end, and you will find no mention at all of God's name. The closest reference to Him occurs when Mordecai cryptically says to Esther that redemption for the Jews will come mimakom aher - "from another place" (4:14). Even the miracle of that redemption is concealed. Compared with the miracle of Hanukka, where the one-day supply of oil burned for eight days, the miracle of Purim is sub rosa: It is not a dramatic, supernatural interruption of the normal course of nature, like a classic miracle. God's interceding hand is quite invisible. Nothing that occurs seems extraordinary. Everything seems to be governed by chance and coincidence - the very things that the Torah tells us the world is not. Queen Vashti just happens to refuse to appear at the royal feast; the king just happens to rid himself of her and to search for a new queen; Mordecai just happens to be in the right place at the right time to foil a plot against the king's life; the king just happens to have a sleepless night; and his courtiers just happen to remind him that a man named Mordecai saved his life. Haman just happens to be in Queen Esther's chambers when the king walks in. Even the date on which the Jews are to be exterminated is chosen at random, determined by the casting of lots: "he cast a pur, that is the lot..." (3:7), and it is this pur that gives us the name of the holiday. All these haphazard events suggest anything but the guiding hand of God. GRADUALLY, A surprising truth dawns on us: The entire deliverance of the Jewish people - then and now - is masked. Ours is a history wrapped in a disguise, hidden behind a costume, concealed behind a veil. Even God Himself, though He is at the controls the entire time, is concealed from our view. That curious Talmudic dictum to drink more than usual underscores this theme. We are, after all, a people of the mind, reason, discernment, analysis, the Yiddishe kopp - all those qualities that fall under the rubric of the intellect that are known as da'at. But on Purim we are bidden to imbibe more than usual and deliberately conceal our vaunted da'at - to the point of ad delo yada - "until there is no da'at." By entering a realm where our minds are temporarily nullified, we demonstrate that it is not our vaunted intellects that guide our lives, but the One Intellect above that guides our lives. There is another strange hiddenness about Purim. With its drinking, the sending of food gifts and the mandatory elaborate meal, Purim is the most physical of our holidays. By contrast, what is the most spiritual of our holy days? Obviously, Yom Kippur. Could there be any connection between the feasting Purim and the fasting Yom Kippur? According to the mystical Zohar, the two are closely related. The biblical name of Yom Kippur is yom ha-kippurim. Kippurim in Hebrew means not only atonement, it also means "like Purim." This is stunning. How can it be that Yom Kippur is like Purim? IT CAN be, because there is an astonishing, hidden link between them. These two days are mirror images of one another. On Yom Kippur we are forbidden to eat or drink; on Purim we are bidden to eat and drink. Yom Kippur is overwhelmingly spiritual. Purim is overwhelmingly physical. Thus, Purim is Yom Kippur turned upside down. Yom Kippur is Purim turned inside out. But deep beneath the surface, they are umbilically connected to one another. That connection is that God's existence can be acknowledged not only through the awe and reverence and the open ark of Yom Kippur, when spirituality seems so palpable, but also - if we probe beneath the surface - through the open food and drink and revelry of Purim, when spirituality seems so remote. Purim thus contains a message for us all - believers and non-believers. Message to believers: Life may seem to be filled with randomness, chance, happenstance and non-spirituality, but beneath it all there dwells the presence of our Creator. It may appear otherwise, but Purim assures us that while He deliberately conceals Himself, He is nevertheless there and has not abandoned us. Message to non-believers: Life may seem to be filled with randomness, chance, happenstance and non-spirituality, but behind it all there dwells the presence of our Creator. It may appear otherwise, but Purim assures us that while He deliberately conceals Himself, He is nevertheless there and has not abandoned us. The writer is the former editor of Tradition magazine.