Isn't it interesting how whenever we start talking about Purim, by the second or third sentence we're comparing it with Chanukah? And vice versa. Purim and Chanukah; Chanukah versus Purim. As if to understand the one we must also understand the other.

Indeed, the two make a natural pair. They are the junior members of the family of Jewish festivals: Chanukah is a mere 2,140 years old and Purim is about 200 years older, while the other festivals date from Moses' time, nearly a thousand years before Purim (Rosh Hashanah can be traced even further back, to the first day of Adam's life). Purim and Chanukah are considered "rabbinical" institutions, while Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are biblically ordained; nor are they "rest days" like the other festivals.

And then there are the contrasts between them, which help to define them vis-a-vis each other. Chanukah's eight days make it the longest festival on the Jewish calendar (Passover's added 8th day is observed only outside of the Holy Land); one-day Purim is the shortest (a distinction it shares with Yom Kippur, which according to the Kabbalists means "a day like Purim" — but that's a different article). Chanukah commemorates a supra-natural event, while the miracle of Purim was achieved by natural, even mundane means. On Chanukah the Jew's faith was under attack; on Purim our very existence was threatened. Chanukah is marked with "spiritual" observances (special prayers, kindling lights); Purim by feasting, drinking, sending gifts of food to friends and money to the poor. Chanukah's story is masculine, with its warring Maccabees and officiating priests; Purim has a heroine as its central figure and a "Scroll of Esther" to narrate its tale.

In other words, Chanukah is oil, Purim is wine.

Oil, say the Chassidic masters, represents the paradox of spirituality. The nature of oil is that when it comes in contact with something it saturates it entirely, seeping in and pervading its every part. But oil also has an opposite nature: when mixed with another liquid it remains aloof, refusing to blend. Such is the nature of the spiritual: sublime, transcendent and pure, it nevertheless pervades everything, transforming it from within. Such is the paradox of Chanukah: a military victory that is a spiritual triumph; a delicate flame, representing our inner, secret soul, is placed in the doorway or window — the boundary that straddles our private and public selves — to seek to illuminate the darkness of the street.

But wine is beyond paradox. Wine has no private self and public self — only a self. Wine has no secrets: when a thing is what it is, it's the same from the inside looking out and from the outside looking in.

It's not that Purim is not spiritual; it's that on Purim the spiritual is as real and as tactual as the material, and the material as lofty and holy as the spiritual. It's not that the feminine is not complex; it's that its complexity lies in what it is rather than in what it does, so that the complexities are not complicated and the paradoxes are not arcane — they are simple truth.

On Chanukah we straddle boundaries; on Purim there are no boundaries. That, of course, is a dangerous thing — on any other time, wine is a thing to be tasted only in moderation. But on Purim there's no danger. It's the one day that we are what we are, truly and freely. When you are what you are, there's no danger that you'll be what you're not.

Happy Purim!