Giving, The True Joy of Purim
The Talmud in Tractate Megillah teaches us that Mi Sh'nichnas Adar, Marbim b'simchah. We increase our joy once we begin the month of Adar (this month that contains the joyous holiday of Purim).
Purim holds a special role in the Jewish imagination. For many of us, the holiday is synonomous with fun. We increase our joy by letting loose: getting dressed up in costumes and celebrating a holiday perfectly suited to the kid in all of us.
While all Jewish holidays are celebrations (as some say: "they tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat"), the emphasis on joy in purim is unique. This is the holiday when an evil decree was turned on its head and we turn everything around. The Megillah of Esther tells us:
Mordecai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughtout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, near and far, charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year--the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy." (Esther 9:20-22)
It seems to be a Jewish parallel to Carnival and Mardi Gras. Indeed, one could find similarities (at least in the costumes and parties). The joy of dressing up, hearing the megillah reading, are all part of the holidays observances. That is not Purim's only joy--perhaps not even its most important joyous tradition. At a time when we could be caught up in ourselves and our celebration ("merrymaking, feasting" in Esther 9:19 & 22), the verses continue: "an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor" (9:22).
The Hebrew of this verse is informative: "mishloach manot ish l're'ehu"--sending portions from one to another-- and "matanot l'evyonim"-presents to the poor. According to Rambam, we send portions to our friends knowing full well that we may get something from them in return. When we go to fulfill the mitzvah of giving to the poor, he refers to it as a hesed shel emet--an eternal kindness that has no expectation of repayment. The joy of Purim is multiplied by exchanging gifts with those in our circle of family and friends and with knowing that we are also giving presents to those who may need it more.
Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein ( 1829 - 1907 ) wrote in his code, Aruch Ha-Shulchan, that matanot l'evyonim is the greatest joy possible because those doing it are likened to the Shekhina. Additionally, he teaches us that with this gift, we are not supposed to try to guess if the recipient is worthy or not. Anyone who stretches out their hand to us, should be given a Purim gift. To Epstein, it is better to give more matanot levyonim than to have a nicer Purim seudah (festive meal).
So, this Thursday night to Friday night, I invite you to join me in all of our joyous practices: dressing up in costumes, listening to Megillat Esther (come to the Five College Purim Celebration at Alumni House of Amherst College!), having a celebratory meal, and sending portions to your friends. But most of all, I invite you to join me in giving presents to the poor. The mitzvah is supposed to be given in person on this day. It can take the form of cooked food, food staples, or money. You can appoint an agent (shaliach) to do this mitzvah for you but only before Purim. Please contact me if you would like to do so.
By giving to others, we can fully celebrate the joy of this holiday.
Hag Purim Sameach (have a joyous Purim holiday),
(thanks to Shulamit for asking about matanot l'evyonim and learning the texts on this subject with me that led to this blog post).