By Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, September 14, 2021
In Jewish tradition, the day of Yom Kippur is wholly unique in multiple ways.
While from the outsider’s perspective it may appear as a deeply solemn, mournful and even tragic day defined by self-affliction, this is by no means the true character of the day, which is the holiest on the Jewish calendar.
In fact, the limitations that we take on over the course of Yom Kippur are designed entirely to enhance our self-introspection and enable us to step away from the day-to-day, so we may then reengage with purposefulness.
One of the more interesting halachic aspects of Yom Kippur is that it cancels shiva. While the seven days of mourning marked by shiva continue over all of the other Jewish fast days, on Yom Kippur the shiva comes to a halt. This is because Yom Kippur is not a day of mourning but, rather, a holiday – and in the Jewish tradition, holidays cancel out mourning.
In fact, in his listing of the Jewish fast days, the Rambam (Maimonides) doesn’t even include Yom Kippur, referring to it instead as Shevitat Asor – “Rest on the 10th Day of Tishrei,” and the Bible calls Yom Kippur the quintessential Shabbat experience.
In the Torah, the day is referred to as Yom Kippurim. Kabbalists noted this name and over the centuries described it as Yom K’purim – literally meaning “a day like Purim.”
While we have already acknowledged that the day is not one of mourning, this association with Purim is still surprising. What could possibly be the correlation between this holiest of days, which is defined by prayer, fasting and repentance, and the one day of the Hebrew calendar where we are actually commanded to eat, deliver food packages, drink alcohol (more than a little) and practice a form of personal escapism that is manifested through costumes and levity?
While there are multiple answers to this question, I would like to suggest two approaches – one that helps us better understand our place as individuals in tradition, and one that explains who we are as a people.
The story of Purim is codified in Megillat Esther, and tells the story of two individuals – Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai – who found personal relationships with God, relationships that transformed a nation’s very destiny and saved us from destruction. The power of one man’s and woman’s bonds with God is one of the critical aspects of the megillah.
Scholars have written that the name of God doesn’t appear anywhere in the megillah. Yet God’s role was ever-present while at the same time hidden from clear view. The power of the story of Purim is that even though God didn’t clearly reveal Himself like in other biblical narratives, Esther and Mordecai were able to bond and create a rendezvous with the One Above.
This is the first lesson that we must take from Purim, as we approach how we relate to Yom Kippur. The path that Esther and Mordecai took toward forging that bond was one that was defined by personal introspection. Their faith came from deep within, and it was that individual sense of conviction and belief that set the path forward for their inspiration and connection with God. Purim, like Yom Kippur, shares with us the opportunity to find a personal connection with God and to recognize how transformational that may be. The kabbalists teach us that we need to harness that same conviction and discover that inspiration to build our personal bonds that will inspire us to recognize the place of God in every aspect of our lives – even when it might sometimes feel hidden.
The second message that connects Purim to Yom Kippur is the sense of unity and trust that existed among the Jewish people in the face of the threat imposed on them by Haman.
Fast-forward through the centuries, and we are once again facing external threats. Today those threats might not be as obviously menacing as those we’ve faced in the past, but they cannot be diminished. The challenges of antisemitism defined by the determination of our enemies to see our destruction is a constant in our history. While the faces might change from Haman to Hitler to Hamas, the common denominator remains their desire to attain the physical and spiritual annihilation of the Jewish people.
Our response must also have a common denominator – and here is where we return to the inherent connection between Purim and Yom Kippur.
The very success of Purim was the result of our ability to internalize our challenges as a people and respond with combined unity and through that passion for God.
This is a critical value which inspires the very identity of Yom Kippur. If we want to earn the favor of God in the very ways that will ensure that He will bestow favor upon us and defeat our enemies, we must first rise to the challenge of working to become united as a people.
It is both a practical and spiritual imperative that if we are to be victorious over external threats, our foremost objective must be to prioritize national unity.
I feel that this message is all that much more important in our modern Jewish world, arguably more so today than in recent decades.
Certainly, and regrettably, division has defined Judaism throughout the entirety of our peoplehood. Personal and tribal factions have divided us in ways that have painfully led to countless lives lost and destruction of our most glorious communities.
But today, I fear that division is the very factor that precludes our ability to best defend against our enemies. Multiple denominations in Judaism is a reality. The fact that we act and observe differently, think differently, cannot be an obstacle to our unity as a people.
If we want to give our children confidence in the eternality of Judaism with the seriousness and passion that it needs and deserves, we do not have the luxury of being a divided people. If we want to overcome the challenges imposed by others, we must first learn to respect one another.
Like Purim, on Yom K’purim the Jewish people stand together in either redemption or Divine abandonment and spiritual emptiness.
This national/spiritual bond is thus one further explanation of what connects Purim and Yom Kippur. For on the one hand we are a people that will always face physical threats, like the antisemitism that we faced in the times of Mordecai and Esther and that we continue to face in 2021. But when we are reminded of the power of our tradition to come together, to be a more united and spiritual people, as individuals and as communities, only then will we be able to show this generation and future generations that the Jewish people will always overcome.
Among the many prayers that we will internalize on these High Holy Days, I would urge us to call out to Heaven that He give us this power to unite.
Because while some might fear that our lack of national unity might be our weakness, our history and our tradition have proven that when we discover it and embrace it, unity is in fact our greatest strength.