When it comes to holidays, Judaism pretty much has it all. Every extreme of any emotion possibly expressed by the human brain has some sort of place in some sort of holiday somewhere on the calendar. And as many things are in life, opposing emotional extremes many times turn out to be eerily similar in their motivations. The Jewish calendar doesn’t try to hide from this danger in human nature (after all, if extreme guilt and drunken partying are so close together psychologically, then people can get hurt, mentally and physically). Instead, Judaism revels in the dichotomous, self-contradictory human mind.
Take, for instance, the holidays of Purim and Yom Kippur. Purim, a holiday of raucous anger, physical indulgence, and quite near insanity, celebrates the Jewish victory over Haman, a Persian dictator appointed by a supreme Persian ruler who, for entirely personal reasons, wants to eliminate the entire Jewish people because he got mad that one of them didn’t bow down to him one day. It is the antithesis of what Western decorum would call a “religious” holiday. According to the Talmud, one is required to get so drunk on Purim that he can no longer tell the difference between “cursed be Haman,” and “blessed be Mordechai” – the hero of the holiday. Or in other words, until he no longer understands the difference between good and evil.
It is a holiday where nothing makes sense, an entire nation just gives up by getting nationally drunk out of their minds, and everything turns out fine in any case. The word Purim is Persian for lottery, or chance, something we have no control over. It is, essentially, a surrender to God’s providence and hand in history, as if to say, “We may as well just get wasted and stop worrying all the time.” Almost nothing is off limits. Even Rabbis are mocked in good humor by their students and congregants.
On the opposite extreme of the Jewish spectrum is the holiday of Yom Kippur. This is the day when Jews freeze in fear, dreading the Divine judge sitting on His throne, so to speak, and realizing that yes, humanity is responsible for its actions and we have to bear the consequences of what we do. No eating, drinking, washing. Even wearing leather shoes is prohibited. The strange thing is, the end emotion is the same as Purim. A surrender to God’s hand in history. What He decides for the year is what will be. Only repentance, prayer, and charity, have a chance to alter the verdict. In the end, whether surrendering by getting drunk or by trying to be the best you can be, the surrender is to the same Ultimate Source.
One more piece to the puzzle: Yom Kippur is not the full name of the holiday. It’s full Biblical name is actually Yom HaKippurim – literally, the Day of Atonements. But in Hebrew, the prefix “ki” means “like”. So translated another way, Yom HaKi-purim means “the day that’s like Purim.”
Either way, it’s the same holiday. Extremes are very close. Judaism helps us understand that being aware of that closeness can save us from the danger it poses.