The Gemara in Masekhet Megilla (7b), amidst its discussion of mishloach manot – the obligation to give gifts of food to one’s fellow on Purim – tells that two Amoraim – Abayei bar Avin and Rabbi Chanina bar Avin (who seem to have been brothers) – would “exchange their meals” on Purim. Rashi explains this to mean that they took turns hosting – one would host the other one Purim, and then the second would host the first the following year. (The Rambam, in Hilkhot Megilla (2:15), appears to have understood this account differently.)
A number of Acharonim noted that this practice – at least as understood by Rashi – might compel us to redefine the obligation of mishloach manot. While the mitzva is conventionally understood as giving gifts, the practice of these rabbis (as Rashi describes it) seems to reflect a more liberal definition of this halakhic requirement. Indeed, the Bach (O.C. 695) explains that the purpose of mishloach manot is for us to celebrate together with other people, raising the level of friendship and camaraderie among Jews. This goal is certainly achieved by people joining together to celebrate Purim at least as much as (and perhaps more than) exchanging gifts of food, and thus (in Rashi’s view) the obligation can be fulfilled by people enjoying the Purim feast together.
Rav Yerucham Levovitz concluded on the basis of the Bach’s comments that the primary obligation of mishloach manot is to give gifts to those towards whom one harbors feelings of resentment. As the purpose (or part of the purpose) of mishloach manot is to increase friendship and harmony among the Jewish Nation, it stands to reason that the best of way of fulfilling this mitzva is by giving gifts to those against whom we might have some grievance, or who might have some grievance against us. Giving mishloach manot to such people can go a long way in reducing tensions and increasing friendship and goodwill among Am Yisrael.
If so, then we might view the mitzva of mishloach manot as an example of the intriguing parallel that exists between Purim and Yom Kippur. An oft-quoted passage in the Tikkunei Zohar remarks that the term “Yom Kippurim” may be read as “Yom Ke-Purim” – the “day like Purim” – thus establishing these two days as contrasting parallels of one another. Much has been written about this startling association between what are likely the two most extreme days on the Jewish calendar – a day of extreme solemnity, and a day of extreme merriment. But Rav Yerucham’s insight perhaps points to one particular point of comparison between these two occasions – both include a requirement to make amends and to quell tensions among people. The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 606) states explicitly that one must seek forgiveness before Yom Kippur from those whom he had wronged, and on Purim, as we have seen, we exchange gifts for the purpose of increasing peace, harmony and friendship.
Developing this point one step further, we might point to a parallel between the significance of these occasions in terms of our relationship to the Almighty, and their significance in terms of our relationship to our fellowman. Yom Kippur, of course, is the day of repentance, when we experience and express our genuine remorse, tearfully ask for forgiveness, and make a firm resolution to improve. On Purim, by contrast, we celebrate our close, unshakable connection to God that exists even before we repent. We indulge in food and merrymaking to commemorate the experience of the Jews in the Persian exile, who were reawakened to their bond with God that remained even as they were submerged in the decadence and vanity of Persian society. We show that we always retain our inner connection to our Creator, even when we appear very distant from Him. This same contrast applies to the interpersonal element of these two special occasions. On Yom Kippur, we draw close to our fellowman through the uncomfortable process of expressing regret and requesting forgiveness. On Purim, however, we raise the level of peace and friendship among Am Yisrael by celebrating the bond that unites us all even when it is marred by tension and strife. We give gifts even to those towards whom we harbor negative feelings, to show that even when such feelings exist, deep down, we remain forever and unconditionally devoted to one another and concerned for one another. Although we at times quarrel and have unkind feelings towards our fellow Jews, we are all, in truth, bound together eternally with genuine love and fierce commitment. On Purim, we show that beneath the “mask” of distance from our Creator and from our fellowman lies a deep and unbreakable bond which we forever cherish and which we festively celebrate each year on this unique day.