Among the most famous and intriguing sources regarding the nature of Purim is found, ironically enough, in the Zohar, which draws a comparison between Purim and Yom Kippur. The Zohar comments that the term “Yom Kippurim,” with which the Torah refers to Yom Kippur, should be read as, “Yom Ke-Purim” – “the day which is like Purim.” Somehow, these two occasions – Purim and Yom Kippur – are deemed comparable to one another, despite the fact that the former is characterized by festivity and merriment, and the second by somber fasting, introspection and prayer.
One of the explanations given for this surprising comparison is offered by Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro of Piaseczno, in his Eish Kodesh (Purim, 5700). He explains that just as one must fast and repent on Yom Kippur even when he is not driven to on his own, similarly, one must feast and rejoice on Purim even when he does not naturally feel moved to celebrate. These two opposite occasions are compared to one another because both require us to conduct ourselves in a certain manner even if our mood at that time is entirely inconsonant with that mode of conduct.
Ideally, when Yom Kippur arrives, we are to sense the awe of judgment and recognize the urgent need to repent. However, there are many who, for one reason or another, do not experience fear, and approach Yom Kippur with indifference and complacency, feeling no need to repent or ask for forgiveness. But Halakha requires us to confess our sins, fast, introspect and pray on Yom Kippur, even if we fail to appreciate the significance of the pending judgment, and even if we feel perfectly content with who we are. The annual Yom Kippur experience forces us into a mindset of serious reflection about ourselves and our conduct, imposing upon us a process of repentance even if we are not naturally inclined to undergo this process. Even if we feel confident and secure with who we are, the obligation of Yom Kippur forces us to carefully examine ourselves and to search until we find flaws to correct and improvements to make.
The Rebbe of Piaseczno is teaching us that the same is true of Purim, only in the reverse. There are times when we feel incapable of rejoicing, of recognizing, appreciating and celebrating the good in our lives and in the world. Whether it’s because of the rigors of day-to-day life and the pressures and problems it presents, or due to other people’s suffering that we observe, or the tragic events of which we hear, we can occasionally feel overwhelmed and distraught, and despair of true, pure joy. Just as Yom Kippur forces us to find the flaws in our characters, Purim forces us to find the beauty and joy in our lives and in the world. Even if we feel disinclined to rejoice and experience happiness, when Purim arrives we are required to find a reason and a way to feel joyous, jovial and cheerful.
This insight of the Rebbe of Piaseczno sheds new light on the famous halakha, “A person is obligated to become inebriated on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordekhai’” (Megila 7b). Much has been said and written about this startling Talmudic passage, but in light of what we have seen, we might explain that Purim obligates us to ignore the “Haman” phenomena in our lives and in the world. On Purim, we must feel pure, genuine joy despite the “curses” that we witness and we experience, despite the adversity that abounds. The purpose of drinking on Purim is not to lose our rational faculties, and most certainly not to compromise our dignity, but to help us forget, for one day, the difficulties and challenges that we face. We are forced to rejoice over the “blessings” in our lives and not worry at all about the “curses,” and this objective underlies the requirement to drink.
Just as Yom Kippur serves as a safeguard against complacency, forcing us to identify flaws in our characters to address, Purim serves as a safeguard against negativity, cynicism and despair, forcing us to identify the goodness in the world for which we can and must feel grateful and joyous.