Tapping the Power of Purim

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Purim is a perennial favorite. It’s clearly one of the most fun holidays on the Jewish calendar. We get dressed up in ridiculous costumes, dance in the synagogue for hours, eat Hamentashen, and maybe even have an extra L’chaim or two…or three.

But what exactly should one try to take out of this holiday? How can I ensure that this Purim won’t be just another good memory, a handful of outrageous pictures to add to “My Purim Costumes 1974-2008” album, and a ton of residual goodies from the Mishloach Manot lingering in the house for a few weeks?

In order to determine these questions, let us look at the four mitzvot connected to the day. Purim, unlike almost all other holidays, is a rabbinical holiday, added to the Jewish calendar in the year 355 BCE by the Sages of the time, led by Mordechai, the protagonist of the Megillah. Those Rabbis instituted four mitzvot that make up the backbone of the holiday; reading the Megillah, matanot l’evyonim (giving money to the poor), mishloach manot (giving food gifts to one’s friends), and seudat Purim, the Purim meal.

What is the common denominator between these four distinct mitzvot that will help us to understand the rich potential of Purim?

One idea that threads through all of these mitzvot is the interaction with other people. The Megillah reading is supposed to be done in a communal setting with at least a minyan. Giving money to those in need and gifts to friends and neighbors also directly involves others. Lastly, the Purim feast is supposed to be shared with many people. The Mishna Berura quotes the Shelah (1565-1630, Prague- Safed), “Praiseworthy is one who gathers all the members of his household and his friends (for the feast), because it is impossible to rejoice properly alone!” (M.B. 695:9)

Why is it that every single one of Purim’s mitzvot involve others? To answer that, we will do something classically Jewish and ask another question. In the story of Purim, the entire Jewish people were facing annihilation. What did they do that was so bad that they would deserve such a thing? We know that there were generations during the times of the Prophets in which most of the Jews were serving idols, directly denying G-d’s existence, yet they lived and prospered. Yet suddenly, in the Megillah story, when the Jews were not all serving idols they were threatened with extinction. What is the reason for this discrepancy?

Ironically, in the Megillah, the evil mastermind Haman answered this very question. When coming to Achashveirosh the king to request permission to annihilate an entire people within the king’s empire, Haman launched into a diatribe on the Jews. Here we should focus on the first few words, as they hold the key to the entire downfall of the Jews. Haman said, “There is one nation spread out and scattered amongst the nations” (Megillat Esther 3:8). What did Haman mean spread out and scattered? Isn’t that the same thing? The answer is that Haman was saying that not only were they physically spread out, they were emotionally scattered from one another as well. There was a lot of hatred between the Jews and many distanced themselves from one another. Haman was telling Achashveirosh that now was the opportune moment to do what so many other empires failed to do. At the time when the Jewish people had no sense of solidarity or unity, Haman knew he could vanquish the otherwise immortal Jewish People.

The Jewish leaders of the time understood this very clearly. When Queen Esther told Mordechai that she would go into the king and plead on behalf of her people (risking her life in doing so), she gave him a list of things that must be done to help her succeed. We will focus now on the first, and perhaps most important words of her request. She said to him, “Go gather all the Jews, and fast on my behalf… “ (Ibid. 4:16) The great Esther understood that the only way to combat a decree that was ignited because the people were scattered would be to gather the people together, to encourage Jewish unity, to fuse the people together, to become united. The Jews are one big family, and when together an unbeatable nation.

Herein is the secret to the holiday of Purim. It is a holiday on which we should focus on our interpersonal relationships with other Jews and see how we can strengthen them. It is for this reason that every single mitzvah associated with this holiday incorporates being involved with other people. This presents us with almost limitless opportunities to work on our unity. We can go hear the Megillah in the synagogue we normally stay away from, or give Mishloach Manot to the person down the block who we have completely ignored for the last two years. We can invite that family “we used to be really close with until someone said something silly by mistake” to our Purim feast. We can even use the holiday cheer and good spirit to apologize to someone and ask forgiveness for some wrongdoing that has strained the relationship.

So this year let’s commit to make our Purim more than simply a fun holiday. Instead, let us make sure that we repair at least one relationship, bring just a little more unity to our people, and in that merit, may G-d finally give the decree “Go gather all the Jews…!”

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.