Shabbat of Sanctity Dirshu’s 20th Anniversary International Convention

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THE REAL MIRACLE OF PURIM



There is one aspect of the Purim celebration that receives far less attention than it should

In the jovial spirit of Adar, let us play a game of association.  I will write a word, and I ask you to identify the first word that comes to mind after reading it.  The word is:

“Purim.”

My guess is that the readers’ immediate association with that word is one of the following: costumes, alcohol, feasting, fun, mishloah manot.  If you happen to be the one who reads the Megillah in the synagogue, the word “Megillah” might be the first to come to mind.  If you are an EMT who has, Heaven forbid, needed to respond to emergencies caused by irresponsible drinking on Purim, your answer would be more sober.

Unfortunately, there is a term that most people do not immediately think of when they hear the word “Purim,” but they should.  That term is “matanot la’evyonim,” and it refers to the charitable gifts that Jewish law requires us to give to the poor on Purim.  For the underprivileged among us, this is the immediate association conjured by the word “Purim” – the much-needed financial assistance that they anticipate receiving on Purim.

It is truly unfortunate that matanot la’evyonim does not generally receive the attention it deserves in our Purim observance, for several reasons.  First, we cannot, in good conscience, enjoy indulging and feasting on Purim knowing that many of our fellow Jews are struggling and experience severe deprivation.  If we want to truly enjoy the Purim celebration, then we must do all we can to ensure that those in need are adequately cared for, so they, too, can experience the special joy of this holiday.

Additionally, the Rambam writes explicitly that this expenditure must be given priority over the Purim feast and mishlo’ah manot.  A person with limited funds – meaning, the vast majority of us – should allocate more money for the mitzvah of charity on Purim than for the other mitzvot of the day.  Sadly, most people today do just the opposite, participating in large, lavish feasts and distributing dozens of elaborate, themed mishlo’ah manot to friends and relatives, while donating just the bare minimum, if at all, for matanot la’evyonim.  It is high time that we get our priorities in order and bring matanot la’evyonim to the center of the Purim celebration where it rightfully belongs.

There is also a third reason why we should be directing more attention to matanot la’evyonim on Purim – because it holds the key to understanding the essential message of Purim.

This will sound surprising to many, as it was to me, when I first encountered this insight.

To explain, let us begin with a simple question.  Why did the sages at the time of the Purim miracle institute a special requirement of charity on Purim?  Of course, charity is always a precious mitzvah.  But what does it have to do with our celebration of the great miracle of being rescued from Haman’s edict?

The answer requires us to probe a bit deeper into the nature of the general obligation to assist the poor, and into the nature of the Purim miracle.

The Philosophy of Charity

The Talmud (Bava Batra 10a) tells of Turnus Rufus, the Roman governor of Judea who engaged in several philosophical debates with Rabbi Akiva, the leading rabbinic sage of the time.  In one such exchange, Turnus Rufus challenged – of all things – the Jewish ethic of charitable giving.  He posed the simple question of what right Jews have to lend assistance to somebody whom Gd had condemned to poverty.  He drew an analogy to a royal servant who angered the king, and was sentenced to prison.  The king issued a strict order forbidding any citizen from bringing this prisoner food or drink.  Surely, a person who violated this edict would be charged with a serious crime.  Why, the governor asked, is this not true also of the poor?  According to Jewish belief, the financial condition of each and every person is determined solely by Gd.  It thus follows that if somebody endures financial hardship, this must be because Gd, for reasons we cannot understand, decreed that he should struggle.  In a sense, Gd “sentenced” this person to a period of deprivation.  What right, then, do the rest of us have to help extricate him from his financial straits?  Do we not disobey the divine will by binging relief to somebody condemned by Gd to poverty?

Rabbi Akiva, in his answer to this question, not only deflected the Roman governor’s philosophical challenge to Judaism, but also opened our eyes to a vitally important, fundamental tenet of Jewish life.  He countered the governor’s claim by changing one detail of his analogy.  If we just substitute the king’s son for his servant, Rabbi Akiva explained, there is no question.  If a king would grow angry at his son and condemn him to prison, ordering all his subjects not to feed him, and somebody violated the edict and fed the son, the king would not object.  To the contrary, he would warmly thank and reward the man for caring for his son.  No matter how angry a parent is at his child, he still loves him and wants to ensure he is cared for.  A father will never object to somebody feeding his hungry son, even if he himself had caused the son’s hunger.

The Jewish People are Gd’s children.  The Torah says so explicitly: “Banim atem leHashem Elokechem –You are the children of Hashem your Gd” (Devarim 14:1).  And so even when Gd condemns somebody from His nation to poverty, He wants others to help that person.  Although He undoubtedly has very good reason to bring financial hardship upon a person, He loves that person like a child, and very much wants that the rest of us will care for him with love, generosity and compassion.

“Gd of Rabbi Meir, Answer Me!”

In his response, Rabbi Meir explained the Turnus Rufus that this fundamental axiom, that the Jews are the Almighty’s children, holds true regardless of our conduct and our spiritual standing.  Even when we fail, even in times when we disobey Gd and do not act as His loyal, devoted children, He still loves us and treats us as a father.

This issue is, in truth, subject to a debate among the Tanna’im, as we learn elsewhere in the Talmud (Kiddushin 37).  Rabbi Yehuda was of the opinion that our nation’s status as Gd’s “children” depends upon our conduct.  If we act like Gd’s children, faithfully obeying His will, then He treats us as His beloved children.  If, however, we fail to live up to the standards expected of Gd’s children, then we forfeit this privileged status.  Rabbi Meir disagreed.  He noted the verse in the beginning of the Book of Yeshayahu (1:4) in which the prophet, communicating the word of Gd, excoriates the people for their disobedience, calling them “a sinful people” and “corrupt children” (“banim mash’hitim”).  Rabbi Meir took note of the fact that even as the prophet condemns the people’s sinfulness, he still refers to them as “children” – proving that the Jewish Nation retains its status as Gd’s children even in periods of sharp spiritual decline.

Normally, when Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir disagree, halachah accepts Rabbi Yehuda’s view.  In this instance, however, Rabbi Meir’s opinion – that we are considered Gd’s children even when we sin – is the accepted position.  The commentators explain that since Rabbi Meir drew convincing proof from a Biblical source, his position earned acceptance.  And it seems clear that Rabbi Akiva, in his exchange with Turnus Rufus, likewise followed the view that we are Gd’s children regardless of our conduct, suggesting that this position has been accepted.

This is the reason for the custom observed by many to declare before giving charity, “Elo-ah De’Rabbi Meir Aneni – Gd of Rabbi Meir, answer me!”  When we give charity, we are to reflect on Rabbi Meir’s axiom – that under all circumstances, every Jew is Gd’s beloved child, which forms the philosophical foundation for the concept of tzedakah, for our assisting those whom Gd has subjected to hardship.  We declare that our charity expresses our recognition of the Jewish People’s special, unconditional stature as Gd’s children, and we appeal to Gd to assist us in all our endeavors just as a parent cares for and helps his child.

Ahashverosh’s Feast and Miscalculation

With this in mind, let us return to the Purim story.

Megilat Esterbegins by telling us of the feast hosted by King Ahashverosh in his royal palace.  He first held a feast for 180 days (!!!), followed by a special seven-day celebration for all the residents of the capital city, Shushan.

The Megilah does not tell us much about this feast, but our sages provide us with additional information.  They teach us that Ahashverosh celebrated what he mistakenly assumed was the Jews’ permanent state of exile.  The prophet Yirmiyahu had predicted 70 years of exile, and Ahashverosh misunderstood the starting point of that 70-year period.  Therefore, in the third year of his reign, the point Ahashverosh thought marked the conclusion of the 70 years foreseen by the Jewish prophet, he celebrated.  He saw that the Jews still lived under Persian rule without a Bet Hamikdash, and thus concluded that Yirmiyahu erred, and the Jews’ exile was permanent.  And so he held a lavish, festive celebration.  Moreover, our sages tell, Ahashverosh wore the special garments of the kohen gadol and used the utensils of the Mikdash, which all had been taken by the Babylonians at the time of the conquest of Jerusalem.  In order to taunt the Jews and publicly celebrate their permanent downfall, Ahashverosh used their sacred vessels for feasting and merrymaking.

There is another startling fact we need to know about this feast: the Jews of Shushan fully participated.  In fact, they not only participated, but they enjoyed every minute of it.  In the Gemara’s words, “…nehenu mise’udat oto rasha – they enjoyed the feast of that evil man.”  They celebrated their own downfall, joining Ahashverosh in festively marking the permanence of the Jewish exile and of the loss of the Mikdash.  We cannot possibly imagine a greater act of betrayal than Jews celebrating their permanent detachment from the Almighty.  Yet, the Gemara teaches us that this is precisely what happened at the beginning of the Megilah – and that this is precisely the reason why Gd sentenced the Jews to annihilation.  It was at that point, when the Jews drank and reveled at Ahashverosh’s celebration of their permanent state of exile, that Gd planned the rise of Haman and his edict of extermination.  Of course, as we know, the Jews ultimately repented and the decree was annulled.  But the decree was issued in the first place because of their betrayal of Gd, when they joined in Ahashverosh’s feast.

The Hatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, 1762-1839) makes an enlightening observation about the Gemara’s depiction, noting that it gives us a whole new appreciation of the Purim story.  What else happened at Ahashverosh’s feast?  As we know, Ahashverosh invited his queen, Vashti, to come before the men, and she refused, prompting Ahashverosh to have her killed, thus necessitating his choosing of a new queen.  He would eventually select Ester, who would later intervene to foil Haman’s plot to kill the Jews.  It emerges, then, that the seeds for the Jews’ salvation were sown at that feast.  The same feast which led the Almighty to decree the Jews’ destruction was the source of their salvation.  Even as Gd condemned the people to annihilation for their betrayal, He was planning their deliverance, eagerly anticipating their prayers and repentance.

This, the Hatam Sofer comments, is the greatest miracle of the Purim story: that Gd was devising the Jews’ salvation even as they were steeped in sin and estranged from Him.  At the moment of fury, when He was angry enough to issue such a harsh decree against them, He was also putting into the motion the process of salvation.

This is the greatest Purim miracle, and is also the greatest possible testament to our status as Gd’s children.  Only a parent remains lovingly devoted to somebody who has angered him.  If Gd is preparing a great miracle for the Jewish Nation even as they betrayed Him, then we can definitively conclude that we are his children unconditionally, under all circumstances, even at times when we sink to the lowest depths.

This, the Hatam Sofer teaches, explains why the sages legislated a special obligation of charity on Purim.  Charity reflects the theme that lies at the heart of the Purim celebration – our everlasting and unconditional status as Gd’s children.  As we celebrate this status, we give charity to the poor, underscoring the notion of “Banim atem leHashem Elokechem,” that Gd is our Father.  Like a father, He sometimes punishes us for our wrongdoing, and He sometimes denies us our wishes for reasons that we cannot understand.  But like a father, He always has only our best interests in mind, and will always care for us.  We enjoy His unconditional love, just as children can always rely on their parents’ love.

Purim and Yom Kippur

Kabbalistic tradition draws a seemingly peculiar association between two opposite holidays on the Jewish calendar – Purim and Yom Kippur.  The Torah refers to Yom Kippur with the term “Yom Kippurim,” which can be read as “Yom Ke’Purim” – the day that resembles Purim.  What connection can there possibly be between the day we spend fasting and engrossed in intensive prayer, introspection and repentance, and the day we spend feasting and merrymaking?  How can we say that Yom Kippur resembles Purim?

One answer is that both express Gd’s extraordinary love for us.  Yom Kippur tells us that no matter how low we have fallen and how far we have drifted from Gd, we are still able to return, and when we do, we are welcomed with open arms.  Purim tells us that even when we do not repent, even we are still distant from Gd, He still loves us and patiently awaits our return.  Yom Kippur is about our ability to rebuild our connection to Gd that had been severed by our wrongdoing, but Purim is about the mysterious bond that remains even when we appear to lose this connection, even when we go so far as to celebrate this loss.  Even when we think and feel joyful that our detachment from Gd is complete and final, it isn’t.  He still loves us, He still believes in us, and He still wants us to come back.

Small wonder, then, that the Purim celebration is marked by a special kind of joy and festivity.  The euphoria of Purim is the joy of knowing that we are never alone, that Gd will never abandon us, no matter how far we fall.  He waits patiently at the edge of the abyss, ready and prepared to lend us a hand when we decide to begin climbing back up.  Knowing we are loved eternally and unconditionally is the cause of the intense joy and exuberance of Purim.

The message of Purim is that our loving Father never gives up on us.  We should never be afraid to call out to Him for help, or to resolve to move forward in our religious observance.  Nothing can ever break the special bond of affection that binds us to our Creator.  He is always there for us; we need to trust that He is ready and waiting to help us rebuild our connection and our special relationship with Him.