by Yossi Prager
Purim commemorates the day on which the Jews were saved from Haman’s evil plot and given the right to defend themselves against their enemies. According to the megillah, the ensuing rout not only preserved the continuity of the Jewish people but also expanded its size, as many Persians converted to Judaism.
Less well-known is the corresponding shift within the commitments of Jews born into Judaism. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 88a), the Jews were initially coerced by God into accepting the Torah shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. Only after their victory in Shushan did the Jews embrace the Torah of their own free will, making them all (in an adaption of the contemporary idiom) “Jews by choice.” Given that the Jews had experienced many miracles beforehand – including the right to return to Zion not long before the Purim story, as the prophets had predicted – it is curious that only the events of Purim generated renewed, voluntary commitment to Torah.
Perhaps the key to understanding the thinking of Jews in the Persian Empire lies in the omission of God’s name, prayer or other religious references from the megillah. The story is presented as a historical set of events in the guise of a farcical comedy whose coincidences defy rational explanation. The reader is not told of God’s role but instead is invited to independently recognize the Hand of God guiding the events that saved the Jews. Modern readers, aware of a history that has now preserved the Jews as the longest-lasting ancient culture, are encouraged by the megillah to see God’s guidance over an even longer span than was evident at the time of Esther.
If the take-away from the megillah is for human beings to see God’s presence even when it is hidden in history, it is easy to understand why Purim caused the Jews to embrace the Torah voluntarily. At Mount Sinai, the Jews were overwhelmed by the awe-filled experience and thus incapable of making a free choice. Through the Purim story, the Jews perceived God’s role in an apparently coincidental chain of events. As the historical actors who appreciated God’s role in their history, they gratefully embraced the Torah that had once been imposed upon them.
A deeper read on the same theme emerges from the thoughts of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. In an essay on Purim (in a book titled Days of Deliverance), Rabbi Soloveitchik noted that the story of Esther reminds us of our enduring vulnerability as human beings in general and Jews in particular. Sure, the story ends on a high note, but a king who whimsically deposed his first queen and unthinkingly condemned an entire people to death could reverse himself once again.
All human beings experience profound anxiety at some level, stemming from our inability to protect ourselves or our loved ones from the shifting winds that tomorrow may bring. We know that any sense of security that comes from wealth and good health is illusory. Turning to God and his Torah can be a response to our vulnerability, a way to seize hold of the path to spiritual growth and develop an attachment to an enduring people.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s insight may help us understand an unusual law regarding the giving of tzedakah on Purim. Purim carries with it four rabbinic mitzvot: reading the megillah, feasting, delivering a food package so that another can use it in their feast (mishlo’ach manot) and charity for the needy (matanot la’evyonim). Like mishlo’ach manot, matanot la’evyonim facilitates the feast – we feed the poor so that they, too, will be able to enjoy their own feasts. There is one unique facet of the mitzvah to provide charity on Purim that distinguishes it from the year-round obligation. All year long, we have the right to investigate whether someone who seeks our charity dollars is in fact poor. (The only year-round exception is if a person requests food, or money to buy food, to satisfy immediate hunger; in that case, we are told to give without investigation.) Purim is different. Jewish law demands that on Purim we provide charity without questioning the integrity or need of the person seeking support. If a person asks, we give, reflexively and generously. Why is charity on Purim different than the rest of the year?
I suggest that all year long we seek to be instrumental in our giving of tzedakah. We want to ensure that our money goes to the right place. (I have previously suggested that personal spiritual growth is also an important goal for giving.) On Purim, however, we give because we feel the emotional need to do so. We rejoice in our relationship with a Loving God, and we tremble about an uncertain and vulnerable future for ourselves and our families. In this frame of mind, we empathize completely with the vulnerable and weak and feel compelled to respond as generously as we can. Our empathy on Purim is so strong that it overcomes the rational desire to ascertain which people are most deserving or most needy. We give because we understand that we are all essentially in their shoes.
As a Jewish communal professional, I find it an ongoing challenge to balance empathy with rational thinking. As a person, empathy is central to my personal and spiritual growth. But my job is to provide the rational discipline, the strategic thinking and recommendations, to support our Board’s decision-making. At times, empathy and rational discipline are at odds. In my job, strategy and effectiveness take precedence over empathy, leaving emotional response to my family’s personal giving. This is the disadvantage of, as Linus of Peanuts fame once said, “being a philanthropist with someone else’s money.”
There is an irony that a day suffused with fun and silliness, based on a story that can best be categorized as farce, generates sufficiently strong emotions to drive us toward God and the disadvantaged. Perhaps the costumes and the silliness reduce our inhibitions, allowing us to experience feelings that we usually suppress. As a roadmap to life, throwing off inhibitions would too often lead to moral and social disaster. But as an annual tactic for helping us appreciate what (and Who) is behind our daily lives, Purim has the power to connect us with our deepest and most meaningful feelings. Purim Same’ach!
Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.