There is a puzzling statement by one of the most famous Rabbis, and experts in Kabbalah (Jewish mystical knowledge), of the last millenium, Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the Ari’zal), who lived in the middle 1500’s in the beautiful city of Safed (Tzfat), in Israel. Commenting on the Jewish festival of Purim (which begins this Monday evening, March 17th, and continues until Tuesday evening), Rabbi Luria said that it has greater holiness and sanctity…than Yom Kippur!
Yes, you read that right. What many Jews consider to be a very minor holiday, a masquerade primarily for children or a Jewish version of Mardi Gras (an excuse for drunken revelry, that is), is actually, according to Rabbi Luria, an extremely sacred and holy occasion. In a certain respect, he claims, it even overshadows our Day of Atonement! And this despite the fact that Yom Kippur derives from the Torah itself, while the observance of Purim, commemorating the salvation of the Jewish people from the evil designs of Haman, advisor to the King of the Persian empire (and spiritual ancestor of Adolf Hitler) in the fourth century, B.C.E., was a much later enactment of our rabbinic Sages, as described in the oral tradition (Talmud).
What was the Ari’zal talking about?
The full answer would require a whole course of study…but here’s a little taste of what he meant.
The Torah teaches us that there are two primary emotions that propel us in our (lifelong) spiritual journey to elevate ourselves, and grow closer to our Creator. One is awe (yir’ah, in Hebrew), and the other is love (ahavah). Both are necessary, since G-d is both our "Father" and our "King." He is simultaneously very close to us (always providing our needs, hearing our prayers, guiding our progress) and, yet, very separate and removed from us (the Eternal One, Maker of Heaven and Earth, Whose essence is far beyond our ability to grasp). Love draws us close, in joy and gratitude, while awe keeps us from becoming too cozy, if you will, with a Supreme Being Who gave us our lives and entrusted us with the responsibility (and free will) to live them in accordance with His guidelines.
Our great teachers tell us that although both emotions are necessary, the "higher" one on the spiritual scale is love, ahavah. On Yom Kippur, we approach G-d primarily through awe, by trembling before Him and sincerely beseeching Him to help us improve ourselves and achieve atonement (forgiveness and spiritual purification) for our transgressions. On Purim, we approach G-d through an overwhelming outpouring of love, by rejoicing before Him and thanking Him for delivering us from extermination. Love leads to greater closeness to G-d, to greater holiness, than does awe! What’s more, the concept of holiness in Judaism is generally not to divorce from the physical pleasures of life (the path G-d tells us to adopt on the day of Yom Kippur), but to sanctify and elevate those pleasures, to use them in serving G-d with joy. This we do on Purim, by eating and even drinking (though not by acting like animals), in true holiness before G-d, letting our physical bodies delight along with our souls.
And our rejoicing is done ideally with the help of wine (though it’s no sin to break out the Jack Daniel’s too), because wine, specifically, helps us remember the miraculous deliverance recorded in the Megilla. The story begins with a (fateful) wine party, and wine plays a crucial part at other junctures in the story. Note, however, that despite what the adolescent in us would like to believe, the Sages never decreed that we should get drunk on Purim. Rather, the mitzvah is to rejoice with food and wine, to reach a state of such happiness with G-d’s miraculous salvations that we can’t discern which is a greater revelation of His glory in the world: the elevation of the righteous ["blessed is Mordechai"], or the downfall of the wicked ["cursed is Haman"]. Both are seen to be the hand of G-d! We reach a level of joy such that all we see is the good that Hashem does, even if it is through the agency of the wicked, their temporary successes, and their eventual downfall.
Crucially, we rejoice on Purim together with our fellow Jews, and the observances of the day are meant to increase our feeling of love and brotherhood with them. [The four main observances are: gathering to read the Book of Esther, sending portions of food to at least other Jewish person, giving special gifts of charity to our fellow Jews, and having a Purim se’udah, or feast.] On Purim, we realize that we must come close to G-d collectively through our shared experience, destiny and mission to be a "holy people" and a "light unto the nations."
We see now that Purim is quite a lot more than St. Patrick’s Day, which coincidentally (or not so) is today, Purim eve. (Observant Jews, in fact, are fasting right now, as the day preceding Purim is known as The Fast of Esther, and commemorates, in the opinion of some commentators, the three, day fast that Esther called for, prior to her appearing before the King to ask mercy for her people.)
Purim is a day of great closeness to G-d, a day of unbounded love between Him and the Jewish people, when our prayers (if we can squeeze them in amidst all the commotion) can achieve very powerful effects. In fact, many great sages have pointedly urged us not to squander the opportunity, and to make time to pour out our hearts in prayer to G-d on this sacred day.
I don’t think we need any reminders that our prayers are needed at the present time, as awesome things are happening in the world right now. I’m not sure what the ultimate heavenly calculation is, but it’s surely no coincidence that President Bush will address the nation tonight…ON THE FEAST OF PURIM!! Could this (finally!) be the final chapter in the downfall of a modern-day evildoer, who if not exactly like Haman, nonetheless styles himself after Nebuchadnezzar, the destroyer of the First Temple?!! Whatever will ensue in the coming days, we can take heart in one of the messages of Purim: if we turn back to G-d with all our hearts, and do teshuva, then darkness will be transformed to light, and mourning to celebration. "The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor." (Esther: 8, 16)
May we all have a very joyous, memorable and HOLY Purim! And may we be twirling our groggers next year in Jerusalem…