I happened to have the privilege this past Shabbat of learning with some friends at my nearest local out-of-town Center-Right Modern Orthodox Shul. As I do when I “happen to learn with friends,” I prepared plenty of sources ahead of time, but the discussion led itself in its own unique direction. What began as a general overview to the Mishkan centered itself eventually on the Shulchan and the paradox of having a symbol of physicality and earthiness in the most spiritual place on earth. We explored sources to the effect that that is in fact exactly the point of the Shulchan – to represent both a grounding of our spirituality in our everyday lives as well as an elevation or “spiritualization” of our physical ones, as Rav Hirsch intimates:
רב שמשון רפאל הירש שמות פרשת תרומה פרק כה
לחם פנים – לחם שאתה אוכל ונהנה ממנו מול פני ה’,
לחם שנתינתו, שמירתו וברכתו מאת פני ה’.
The Ibn Ezra likewise explains the name of the Shulchan as being connected to the location of the Shulchan directly behind the Aron, thus allowing the Aron to cast its glow upon the Lechem HaPanim. A theme seems to be that, as the Midrash Halacha relates, one’s personal ongoing spiritual journey is depicted as a vacillation between the ostensibly physical Shulchan on one side of the Mishkan and the overtly spiritual Menorah on the other, but with the Mizbeach directly in between to hint at a more spiritual kind of eating, as Hashem “eats” the spices each day. Wherever we find ourselves on our personal Shulchan-Menorah journey, it seems, we are adjured not to shun physicality per se because even Hashem, so to speak, engages in it on the Mizbeach.
I had a sudden realization on Purim morning this year that this idea has an additional connotation connected to the famous Purim-Yom KiPurim connection that some people draw. On the day before Yom Kippur, there is a well-known Halacha to eat. Among the reasons for this (hear the most famous one in this Shiur on Halachot of Erev Yom Kippur), some people explain the message as one of openness to the idea that if we elevate the physical, we serve Hashem as powerfully as if we refrain from eating on Yom Kippur. We do not have monasteries in our religion; we use the physical to serve Hashem, rather than refrain from it.
If this is indeed the message in eating on Erev Yom KiPurim, how interesting then that on the day before Purim, we … don’t eat! Because the lesson to be gleaned from eating on Erev Yom Kippur would be only that the physicality shown before Yom Kippur can be elevated by Yom Kippur itself, which is only half the story. Fasting before Purim, however, completes the circle by reminding us that the spiritualization felt just before Purim must be grounded in the normalcy of eating and drinking on Purim. Our spirituality is not of the pie-in-the-sky, behind-closed-doors variety. It is there for all to see in the form of merrymaking and, yes, even drunkenness. My out-of-town local Orthodox Rabbi (who also happens to be my boss) made a similar point this past Shabbat morning in quoting Rabbi Saul Berman that unlike in other religions and cults, in which spiritualization takes place behind closed doors and is hidden away from the masses, the Torah provides exacting specifications and details for spirituality in the form of the Book of Vayikra and the end of Shemot before it. There are no secrets when it comes to Jewish spirituality or how to come close to Hashem. Just read the book!
After I shared all this with my friends at my Purim Seudah, one final connection occurred to me. Chronologically, the moment of clarity we feel at the holiest moment of Yom KiPurim, Neilah, corresponds to another moment of astounding clarity, the Seudat Purim, similarly designed to take place in the late afternoon as Purim ebbs away. At the moment of the greatest physicality, we feel the greatest connection to Hashem – just as on Yom KiPurim, at the moment of our greatest spirituality, we feel the same way. The year’s cycle reminds us that it is not by abstinence alone that we find God in our lives, but by a careful introduction of the physical tended with care and with the right intentions. Unchecked physicality can be as dangerous as unchecked spirituality. The powers of either to elevate or cast us down are limitless. It is ours to make the right decisions and use them for their positive end, rather than their negative one. As the spirituality of Yom KiPurim is tempered by being bookended by a day of eating and the very physical, earthy holiday of Succot, Purim brings with it the challenge of having its overt physicality tempered by a day of abstinence on one side and the spiritual cleansing afforded us by Pesach on the other. All the world is a spiritual canvas; it is ours to draw the right picture.