Thoughts to Ponder Number 8
Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5759; 12 August, 1999
Yom Kippur: A Day Like Purim

The Ba'ale Ha-Kabbalah discovered mystical associations between Purim and Yom Kippurim, the only difference in Hebrew spelling between the two names being an initial kaf in Kippurim. Yom Kippurim then, would signify "a day like Purim." This is no doubt a strange association. To suggest that Yom Kippur is like Purim is a most unusual way of looking to this awesome day. What is the possible meaning behind this observation?

The Talmud in Shabbath (88a), in its discussion of the revelation at Sinai, makes us aware of a theological problem. As is well known, our forefathers have always been praised for their spontaneous outburst when they declared that they would observe the mitzvoth even before they had an understanding of what they would consist of. Their proclamation of "Na'ase" (we shall do) before "Nishma" (we shall listen) has been viewed as one of the highest levels of religious devotion. Still, our talmudic passage draws our attention to the fact that this devotion was in no way as great as the one which the Jews achieved in the days of Purim. Towards the end of the Book of Esther we are told that after their miraculous deliverance from the "final solution" devised by the architects of the Persian genocide program, the Jews accepted upon themselves the observance of Purim for ever after. "Kiymu ve'kiblu," "the Jews confirmed and took on themselves" and their children after them to observe these two days of Purim. Logic would dictate here as well that the two key words should be in the reverse order. First they should have "taken" (kiblu) this day of Purim on themselves, and then they should have "confirmed" (kiymu) it by actually observing Purim. It is probably because of this inversion of the proper order in the verse that our rabbis read a special meaning in this phrase. When the Lord revealed his Torah at Sinai, they tell us, He lifted up the mountain and held it over the heads of the Israelites, gathered below, as if it were a cask, and He said to them, "If you accept the Torah good and well; but if not, I shall drop the mountain on your heads and there shall be your burial place." The rabbis then proceed to draw the conclusion that the Israelites were coerced into accepting the Torah. Rabbi Aha ben Yaacov argued that if this is the case then "moda'a raba l'oraita" - this becomes a strong protest against the obligatory nature of the Torah. It is giving notice to God, that the Torah may represent a permanently binding contract between God and Israel, but a contract signed under duress is invalid. In that case, the Jewish people could argue that it was not really bound by the Torah's requirements. Nevertheless, Rava adds, the Israelites reaffirmed the Torah voluntarily in the days which Purim commemorates, upon which it is written, "kiymu vekiblu," that the Israelites confirmed and then accepted which means: "kiymu mah she'kiblu kevar:" After the Purim incident the Israelites confirmed what they long ago had accepted. That is, now after their deliverance from Haman they confirmed their voluntary acceptance of the Torah which they were first forced to accept at Sinai.

There is a deep theological and psychological insight behind this unusual talmudic passage. A moral act is only authentic when it issues out of genuine freedom of choice. The Torah is only meaningful when the human being is free in accepting it. "I have set before you this day life and good and death and evil….and you shall choose life." (Devarim 30:15-19) According to Jewish law, a person cannot be held responsible for an act which he was forced to do. In such a case, a person acted under compulsion and is not guilty.

This is first of all true when one is forced to do evil or to transgress a prohibition such as in the case of a criminal act in a seizure of insanity or other mental distress. But this is also true when one has encountered a most unusual religious experience, such as the sudden occurrence of an angel who gives a commandment to perform a mitzvah. In such a case, one cannot claim that one should be credited for such an act. After all, one was forced into this mitzvah, due to an unprecedented angelic vision. This was indeed the problem at the time of the theophany at the top of Sinai. The Israelites had no choice but to accept the Torah. This full confrontation with God had indeed elevated them to such an extant that they were totally robbed of their freedom of will. Clearly this is the meaning of the statement of the rabbis that God held the mountain over them. They had no choice but to accept it.

What this all means is that man's freedom can only be used when he is not forced into evil or overwhelmed by an unprecedented religious experience. Compulsion and freedom are mutually exclusive. So, where then is man's freedom found? In a "neither here nor there" condition. Only when he is not forced one way or the other. When things are normal, and the world runs its course and God is neither too much here nor too much absent, only then is man able to use his freedom of choice. (See also Norman Lamm, Neither here nor there, The Royal Reach Feldheim, NY,1970)

It is the Purim story which stands for this very principle. In those days there were no open miracles which would reveal God to such an extent that the Jews would have lost their freedom to choose. Neither was it a time that God was totally absent which would give cause to the denial of His existence. The victory of the Jews over Haman and the frustration of his nefarious plot was a triumph which nobody had really expected nor completely denied. It is only in such conditions that men can make a choice. Hence, if -- as they did -- they turned to God and accepted the Torah, this was a genuine and binding commitment, kiymu vekiblu, they confirmed what they had agreed on before and took it on themselves.

It is this thought which allows us to understand the reason behind the sages belief that Yom Kippurim is a day like Purim. Yom Kippur has only meaning as a day of atonement when man lives in Purim-like conditions. Only in a situation where God's providence is not too much revealed, nor too much absent can man claim merit for his good deeds. Any other situation would make Yom Kippur impossible. If our last year would have been spent in a continuity of open miracles, we would have been forced to live a life of righteousness, and if it would have passed leaving us with an overwhelming feeling that God had left us altogether, we would have believed that this world has no purpose, and man himself would be the creator of his own moral standards so that Yom Kippur would be a farce. Only in a case such as Purim is man able to confront his responsibilities in an even-handed way. It is for this reason that Yom Kippurim is a day like Purim.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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