Author’s Note: This article was one of two written for the March, 2020 issue of The Scroll.
Warning: This article contains unrestricted political commentary. Reader’s discretion is advised.
Ahhh… Purim. What a great time of year. This is the time when we read the Megillah, eat, drink, dress in costumes and generally have a good time. For one day, the Jewish people have a morale boost. Especially nowadays, that is a welcome thing.
I often think about how our ways are different from those of society around us. Whenever we celebrate, we always have to take a step back and remember those of us who are less fortunate. On Purim, we have the traditional Mishloach Manot (by the way, if you haven’t gotten your order in, don’t wait. Maybe you still can by the time this is published) in which we give gifts of food to one another. Ever wonder why we do that? The Talmud tells us that the reason we give these gifts is to ensure that everyone has food to celebrate a festive meal.
How about Matanot La’Evyonim (gifts to the poor)? That’s also a special Mitzvah for Purim. It too was instituted to ensure that even the poorest among us would have the financial wherewithal to celebrate the holiday properly.
What I find so fantastic here is that these are Mitzvot. They’re not optional. We cannot fulfill our obligation to celebrate Purim unless we do our part to ensure that others can celebrate too.
Judaism is very community centered. As Jews, we believe that “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Bazeh”, All Jews are guarantors for one another. We bear a responsibility to each other. When one of us is in pain, it is our sacred duty to try and help ease their pain. Caring for one another is a central tenet of our faith.
On the other hand, so is personal responsibility. The Mishna in tractate Pe’ah discusses the rules regarding when someone is allowed to avail themselves of public assistance. For example, if one has a certain amount of funds, they are not allowed to take assistance from the Kupa (a community run fund which held funds for the poor.) The last Mishnah in the tractate states as follows: “(A)nyone who needs to take and does not take, will not die of old age until he supports others with his own money.” In other words, it is greater for someone to not rely on public assistance but to take charge of their life and lift themselves up through hard work. Of course, the commentaries are quick to qualify this. Rav Ovadia M’Bartenura, who wrote a famous commentary on the Mishnah, explains that it is not the intent of the Mishnah to advocate that people live in abject, terrible, killing, poverty rather than accept help. The implication is that it is better to accept help than risk personal harm but to work hard and to stop taking assistance as soon as possible.
At the core of Judaism lies our personal relationships with Hashem and with each other. We believe that our prayers, for example, go straight to G-d without any intermediate assistance. We do not confess to a priest, we confess directly to G-d himself. We do not rely on angels to carry our prayers, G-d himself hears our prayers directly from us. As King David said in Psalms (130:2): “Hashem, listen to my cry; let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy.” King David calls directly to G-d for help. In fact, if you look throughout the Tanakh, I cannot think of a single time when any leader of Israel prayed through any intermediary; all prayers were aimed directly at G-d.
On the same token, we have a communal responsibility to each other. When people need help, it is up to you and me, not some faceless government or organization, to provide that help. Yes, there are organizations that collect for the poor and they do so because their collective fundraising can help more people than you or I can individually. However, they are no more than our agents and, as the Talmud teaches us in many places, “a person’s agent is like himself.” These organizations do not have the power to force us to give and we have the choice of which organization we feel will best serve our interests. That is why so many people will give their Matanot LaEvyonim to their Rabbi to distribute inasmuch as they trust their Rabbi to choose people truly in need and thus ensure that their hard earned Tzedaka money is being properly used.
I think that this is a very important lesson of Purim. It is a strong reminder that we have endured as a people not because we relied on a faceless organization or government but because we relied on each other. Time and time again governments and politicians have failed us. Governments have passed anti-Jewish laws, sponsored pogroms and built concentration camps. We have survived despite their best efforts because we had G-d and we had each other.
I have no interest in espousing a political philosophy here. This is not the place for it. But I do believe that placing our trust in politicians and governments would be a gross error because a friendly government today may not be so friendly tomorrow. That is a lesson of our history. We live in an age when candidates for president openly align themselves with virulent anti-Semites and then try to convince us that they have our best interests at heart. I am sorry. I will not buy it. If you align yourself with those who hate us, I will not count you among my friends. Period, end of story.
This Purim, let’s take time out to remind ourselves what is important, upon whom we can truly rely and where our responsibility actually lies.
Oh, and don’t forget to have a great time this Purim. Take a day and celebrate. Enjoy a morale booster shot and revel in Hashem’s kindness for having saved us not only in the days of Mordechai and Esther but on countless other occasions. Spend time with your friends, family and community. Join us at Shaarei Israel for Megillah reading (and don’t forget the kids and grandkids). Make it a special day and build memories. That’s a Mitzvah too.
Postscript: Unfortunately, there are many in the Jewish community who believe that it is a Mitzvah to get drunk on Purim. The origins of this, and the reasons why I believe that they are dangerously wrong, are beyond the scope of these pages. However, if you are going to drink, please do so responsibly. Most importantly, be careful on the roads. Not everyone uses common sense when it comes to alcohol. Be safe out there.