Last week, I spent Purim somewhere I have never been before –Vienna, Austria. I helped staff a humanitarian mission to assist the Ukrainian refugees arriving in Vienna, by the Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership, and the Office of Student Life, through my position in the President’s Office at Yeshiva University.
President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, myself, our staff, Dr. Erica Brown, Rabbi Josh Blass, and our incredible group of students arrived in Vienna accompanied by multiple duffel bags filled with toys, games, and Purim costumes, and a game plan titled “Operation Torat Chesed.” We spent our days speaking with refugees, distributing supplies, costumes, and trying to get to know the people we have all read about in the news as of recently.
The realities of the Ukrainian refugees really hit me when myself and a group went to volunteer at the train station where groups from Ukraine arrived. We spoke to them, heard their stories, and saw individuals collecting food and water, and even finding shelter in a corner on the floor. I spoke with people who fled their homes and had no idea where they would spend the next weeks, months, or years. I spent time with Ukrainian children, played with them, and tried to distract them from their hardships even if it was just for a moment. It felt wholly different from reading these stories in the paper every morning. I was seeing this crisis firsthand.
A concept I learned on this trip from one of our incredible students is that we often think of Chesed (compassion) in an isolated and transactional manner. To put imagery to it, we may perceive this as a single direction vector –– the giver gives to the party in need, and the party in need receives. Oftentimes, it is the giver who perhaps may be receiving more. For me, being on this trip, seeing our incredible students jump into action and give back inspired me deeply.
Coupled with this experience of helping hundreds of refugees was our preparation for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which we would be celebrating with Jewish refugees. Purim night was spent at an elaborate megillah reading and party hosted by the Russian Viennese community, along with the Ukrainian refugees. Stepping into that room felt like fiction. Seeing Russians and Ukrainian unite through their religious heritage, despite their current conflicting homelands, was perhaps one of the most moving moments for me.
The energy and Achdus (togetherness) of everyone in the room left me with a resounding sense of hope. We all truly felt, brought, and received the unique Simcha (happiness) of Purim. To me, this truly reflected what the holiday of Purim is all about.
It is often taught that there is a deep connection between Purim and Yom Kippur, as Yom Kippur is known as “Yom K’ Purim,” a day similar to Purim. One might immediately question–– how are the two holidays possibly comparable when they seem so starkly disparate. An answer given is in their Kedusha (holiness). Yet, the concept of Kedusha itself is not plainly simple to understand. To start, the definition itself is unclear. Just turn to a dictionary that defines “holiness” as “sanctified”… then defines the word “sanctified” as “holy.”
One explanation by Chazal is that Kedusha constitutes a separation. This idea is amplified through the Kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum, —where there is more separation, there is more g-dliness.
Yom Kippur is the Holy of Holies. It is a day Jews spend imitating angels and refraining from the most physical and human acts, namely, washing, eating, and engaging in relations. It is a day spent meant to be between the self and God. In contrast, Purim is a holiday celebrated through the physical. We engage and indulge in merrymaking through the mitzvot (commandments) of a seudah (meal), giving Mishloach Manot (gifts), drinking, and giving gifts to the needy.
What I have learned from this duality is the following connection: while we have Yom Kippur to create that uniquely “separate” and holy experience, that is not the way we are meant to exist in a daily fashion. Purim teaches us that it is also through our tangible realities that we can create the holiest experiences. To paraphrase what the Rav teaches in his revered work, Halahick Man, we must leave the four cubits of thyself, and involve ourselves with the world in our religious temperaments. This is exactly what this incredible group in Vienna created on Purim, and it is this type of unique, values-driven work that we do at Yeshiva University.
I am proud, honored, and humbled that I was able to witness and experience this unique Kedusha this Purim while hoping for a better tomorrow.