By Rabbi Donny Schwartz
While there are many lessons we can learn from the Purim story, there is one that is often overlooked: The secret to love.
Every year before Purim, we teach this lesson to the thousands of teens who attend our Jewish Student Union Clubs (JSU) on public school campuses nationwide. And they are surprised to find that the secret to building and maintaining strong relationships can easily be found within the ancient Hebrew language, and put into practice by celebrating a holiday whose story took place over 2,000 years ago.
We begin by giving each teen a blank card and asking them to write down what love means to them. The answers range from serious to funny, with teens writing things like “saying I’m sorry” and “buying chocolate.”
Then we explain that while in English, the word “love” is thrown about freely, in Hebrew it has a special meaning. Ahava, love, is made up of three basic letters, aleph, hey and veis. These three letters can then be broken down into two parts: a two-letter base or root, and the first letter, which acts as a modifier. The meaning of the two-letter base of ahava is hav, which means “to give.” And the letter aleph, which serves as the modifier, means “I.” The meaning of ahav, then, can be translated as “I give,” in addition to its basic meaning of “love.”
We show the teens that the connection between these two words teaches us that the secret to love is giving. Even more than that, the actual process of giving is what creates a connection between the giver and the recipient. The more giving one does, the greater the connection he builds with those he gives to.
The process of giving is also the vehicle through which the giver is able to give of himself to others. Whatever he gives to another person, whether a physical gift or even a verbal comment, he is taking something that he could have used for his own needs and is instead giving it to someone else.
Giving, then, is the method that enables us to connect to one another. Giving creates and sustains love. And without it, no relationship can endure.
This is why on Purim we give mishloach manot, gifts of the food, to our family and friends. Purim is a day of inspiring love and fostering good communal relationships. When we give mishloach manot, we create ahava, love and re’ut, friendship. Mishloach manot are an expression of our love for others.
At our JSU clubs, after explaining the true meaning of love, we set up Mishloach manot stations with candy and bags and encourage the teens to make mishloach manot to distribute to their friends.
But more importantly, we teach them that Judaism and its holidays have within them the secrets to life’s greatest challenges – even for modern-day teens.
Rabbi Donny Schwartz, M.Ed., known fondly as “Rabbi Donny” to thousands of teens across the Midwest, is the regional director of Midwest NCSY, the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union.