Better Than Yom Kippur1
It may be everyone’s favorite Purim sound-bite. If the tenth of Tishrei can be called “yom ki-Purim,” a day like Purim, then we feel a bit holier even as we revel in the merriment of the fourteenth of Adar. For the comparison between the two days to hold, however, we need to understand just how Purim can be compared – favorably – to Yom Kippur. To the untrained eye, the two seem like apples and oranges.
“Aharon shall bring atonement upon its horns once a year; from the blood of the chatas of atonement once a year shall he bring atonement upon it for your generations.” The two halves of the pasuk seem to be mirror images of each other – with a few key differences. The first half mentions only “once a year,” while the latter half speaks as well about perpetuity. Commentators have written much about this verse, but we might propose a different approach. The second half of the pasuk alludes to Purim. While the formal kaparah on the mizbeach can only take place once a year on Yom Kippur, Purim provides a similar opportunity for kaparah “for your generations,” i.e. at all times, even when there is no Beis Ha-Mikdosh.
Purim and Yom Kippur are similar, but they are also quite different, and in some ways, even opposites. They come from different places, as it were. Yom Kippur is deeply enmeshed in yir’ah; Purim accomplishes its purpose through ahavah. Only those who do teshuvah find atonement on Yom Kippur according to the majority view, but Purim atones even for those who have not, taught the Rozhiner Rebbe. This, too, is a consequence of Purim’s link to ahavah, rather than yir’ah. (One opinion in the gemara has it that Yom Kippur does atone without teshuvah. Meor Einayim explained this to mean that it affords kaparah for some sins for which teshuvah is insufficient. According to this view, we should argue that Purim can bring atonement for sins that Yom Kippur doesn’t address!
A comment of the Maharal leads us to another similarity – and difference. Maharal points out that both Yom Kippur and Purim contain a resurrection theme. We tend to place techias ha-meisim at the end of history, as part of the messianic final chapters of humanity. Every Yom Kippur, however, is a kind oftechias ha-meisim, in that people whose Divine scrutiny may have resulted in a death sentence are given a new lease on life.
This very similarity, however, suggests the difference between the days. Techias ha-meisim is not of this world. It transcendsteva. Any Divine gift of such specialness requires a human component. Heavenly gates may open up to allow us access, but if we do not reach up and seize it, the gift does not help us. (In more kabbalistic terms, theisra’usa de-le’eila demands that we take hold of it.)
Returning to what we stated before, if we view Yom Kippur as rooted in yir’ah, we could paraphrase its essence as, “And therefore I will go in to the King properly.” Purim, however, situated inahavah, has a different motto: “And thus I will go in to the King although improper.” Yom Kippur is preceded by a month and a half of intense self- examination and change. On Purim we approach the King without any pretense of critical preparation, relying entirely on His loving embrace.
Yom Kippur’s drama is higher profile. Everyone recognizes its holiness. Purim, explained the Ari z”l, is so holy that its holiness cannot be recognized. It contains special elements that have no peer in Shabbos or any of the Yomim Tovim. Its luster is so brilliant that it must be masked and disguised, so that it can survive, unmolested by thesitra achra. (The crown jewels, he said, make too attractive a target to move them openly from place to place. If they must be moved, they will be transported in a lowly wagon, mixed in with a load of rags. Their safety depends on appearing outwardly to be of less worth than their real value.) This thought provides an alternative explanation for some of our Purim practices. We don costumes, hiding our real identities; we drink in excess, acting as if we have no capacity to comprehend the deep significance of the day.
Toras Avos contrasts the way Shabbos and Yom Tov work on our mood, by way of a mashal of a king reaching out to a poor commoner. On Shabbos, the king brings the pauper into his palace, where he is mesmerized by his surroundings. He finds relief from his affliction because while he is in the palace, he forgets about his commonplace existence. He is not so much happy as stunned, dazzled and intoxicated.
By contrast, on Yom Tov the king takes up residence with the pauper in his lowly, simple home. This brings great joy to the pauper. Despite the limitations of his inelegant existence, he is able to host the king and enjoy his company.
We could add two more variations to this model. Yom Kippur is Shabbos Shabboson,or Shabbos taken to the next level up. Here the pauper is taken not only to the palace, but to the inner chambers of the king. The experience is elevating, overwhelming and transformative – but it is not a time ofsimchah. Very different is Purim, where the king moves in with the pauper, while his abode is not only simple, but in disrepair and disarray. The pauper’s mood, darkened by his failures and his tribulations, turns to absolute elation through the king’s visit. His simchah is reflected in the eating, drinking and rejoicing of Purim.
The mashal works well to describe the varied facets of our avodah. When we serve Him through learning and davening, using His tools so to speak, we enter the King’s palace. When we serve Him through the elements of ordinary life, by elevating our eating and drinking and other pedestrian affairs, we bring the King to our own homes. Hashem created the world “in order to have a residence in the lower worlds;” raising up the common and ordinary is perfectly in synch with that goal. Purim, incorporating as it does much eating and drinking, presents a unique opportunity at elevating the ordinary. Purim creates the chance for us to pursue this noble goal even while we are mired in spiritual mediocrity. (This is yet another reason for our costumes on Purim. We remind ourselves that our shortcomings and faults are really superficial, like the costumes we wear. At our core, we are all loyal Jews possessing a Divine soul from above. Our faults, like the costumes we wear, can be discarded at will.)
All who stretch out their hands to receive charity should be given on Purim, according to halachah. We react to need with unstinting generosity, throwing our usual discretion about giving to the winds. Our teachers have taught us that this practice mirrors the pattern in Heaven on Purim. There, too, all who stretch forth their hands from earth to receive are not turned away. On Purim, they told us, we can merit providential solutions to our problems like no other day of the year. This, too, is part of the potency of the day.
When we put this nature of the day to good use, we would be well advised to follow the example of Esther. Questioned by Achashverosh, “what is it that you ask…and what is your request?”  Esther’s response instructs us in our own petitions on Purim. Given the opportunity to ask for anything, she says, “my life for my asking; my people for my request.”  Now “asking” is the external manifestation of the inner “request,” the latter occupying the core condition. Esther places her own life with the word “asking.” It is important, but it pales in comparison to the value that is of utmost importance in her heart of hearts: the welfare of her people.
When we probe what is central to our being and our focus on Purim, this holiest day of the year, we come up with our commitment to each other as G- d’s holy people.
1. Based on Nesivos Shalom, Purim, pgs. 32-35
2. Shemos 30:10
3. Esther 4:16
4. And, unlike Yom Tov, there is no halachic requirement of simchah on Shabbos – only oneg
5. Vayikra 23:32
6. Esther 7:2
7. Esther 7:4
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org