Purim is coming and perhaps not a moment too soon. Over the last few months anti-Semitism has been on the rise. Swastikas has been found in various locations across America. Over one hundred bomb threats have been made against JCCs, and several Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized. More than any other holiday, it is the story of Purim that reminds us of the vulnerability of Jewish life, especially so for those who live in the Diaspora. Purim, however, also offers us an escape from the harsh realities of Jewish existence. It is a day when we let go of our fears and throw ourselves into celebration and merrymaking. At the heart of Purim is a sublime joy and happiness unlike anything that is experienced on the other Jewish holidays, and it is worth examining closely. In their construction of the holiday, the rabbis acknowledged that joy is a complex emotion with many facets to it.
First and foremost it is undeniable that physical pleasure plays an important role in experiencing joy on Purim. They rabbis resolutely state that during the time the Temple there was no joy without meat and since the Temple’s destruction, there is no joy without wine (Pesachim 109a). For many on Purim, the height of joy is the festive seudah, a meal that combines the eating of meat and the drinking of wine. After listening to the megillah, and performing the other mitzvot of the day, we settle in and enjoy a delicious meal while indulging in several glasses of our favorite vintage.
It is critical to understand, however, that joy and happiness are not limited to physical pleasure. They also have a social dimension as well. Therefore, on Purim, we reach out and connect to our fellow Jews through the giving of mashloach manot. The excitement we feel when we receive these gifts from others is electric and has an enduring impact. Scholars have long noted that gift giving can serve to strengthen social bonds. Receiving a gift not only brings about warm feelings towards the giver, but it also creates a powerful sense of reciprocity. Haman may have described the Jews as “scattered and divided” (Esther 3:8), but the purpose of mashloach manot was to increase peace, joy, and brotherhood demonstrating that we are one people united in love.
As enjoyable as the seudah and mashloach manot may be, they are not without their flaws. Pursuing physical pleasure and social connection can easily become shallow and self-serving. When we are satiated with food, we forget about those may be hungry. Drinking to excess frequently leads to inappropriate behavior. And too often the giving of gifts is limited only to those who are part of our social circle. The Rambam vigorously critiques joy that is derived only in these ways. He writes in response to the mandate of being joyous on the pilgrimage festivals, but his words are also deeply relevant to the holiday of Purim.
When one eats and drinks on the holiday, they are obligated to feed the stranger, the orphan, and the widow along with all those who are poor and in need. One who closes the doors of his courtyard to eat and drink solely with one’s wife and children and does not offer food to the poor and suffering, this is not the joy that is commanded rather it is simply the joy of filling one’s belly.
(Laws of Festivals 6:18)
The Rambam reminds us that joy and happiness have an ethical dimension as well, and it is this aspect that is perhaps the most important. Ultimately, we feel true happiness not when we satisfy our selfish desires but when we transcend our ego to care for others. Giving to the poor requires us to go beyond our comfort zone in order to include those we all too often ignore. In a beautiful teaching, the Rambam perceives matanot l’evyonim as the central way in which we experience the true joy of Purim.
It is better that a person decides to give more matanot l’evyonim even if it means that the festive meal is smaller and he spends less money on mashloach manot for his friends. There is no greater and magnificent joy than to bring happiness to the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. One who gladdens the heart of the downtrodden is like the Divine presence.
(Laws of Megillah and Channukah 2:17)
Through selflessly giving to others and enabling their joy, we too can gain happiness, or as the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said it, “Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself.” It is interesting to note that the Rambam’s sentiments about matanot l’evyonim may in fact be rooted in the story of the megillah. The very first Purim celebration was a spontaneous outpouring of joy in response to a surprising victory over a cruel and capricious enemy. The festivities consisted of “a day of gladness and feasting, and a good day, and of sending portions one to another” (Esther 9:19). However, it was only after Mordechai sought to institutionalize the holiday the following year throughout the entire Persian empire that a new practice was added. He instructed that “they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and (matanot l’evyonim) gifts to the poor.” (Esther 9:22). It appears Mordechai understood that without the ethical dimension of joy, the holiday of Purim was not worth perpetuating for future generations.
In his writings about tzedekah, the Rambam further clarifies that the joy we receive is commensurate not with the amount that we give but with the way in which we give. He writes:
All who give tzedekah to the poor with a frown while looking at the ground, even if they give a thousand gold coins, they lose whatever merit they might have achieved. Rather, one should give with a smile, with joy, and empathize with the recipient in their pain
(Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 10:4)
According to the Rambam, tzedekah must be given with a smile, empathy, and even joy. Smiling demonstrates that the recipient is a human being created in the image of God and deserving of our respect. Empathy indicates that we are willing to open ourselves up to their discomfort and genuinely want to alleviate their pain. The last detail, however, is the most challenging. Why would the Rambam direct us to give tzedekah with joy? Isn’t it callous and hypocritical to experience joy when faced with intense suffering? One might assume that the Rambam understands this joy as the joy that is typically felt when performing a mitzvah, however such an approach would be cruel. It treats the recipient of tzedekah as simply a means for our religious ends.
I don’t think I began to understand the true meaning of the Rambam’s teaching until after many years of living in Jerusalem. Growing up in an affluent and suburban Jewish community, it was rare for me to come across those who were homeless or truly destitute. Jerusalem, however, is a vastly different environment. Homelessness is a part of the landscape and one has to make a conscious effort to ignore the beggars on nearly every corner. When shopping for shabbat, there was series of stores I would visit, and inevitably, I would pass by an elderly woman standing at the same spot each week. She would hold out her hand asking for tzedekah from all who walked by.
I am sorry to say that for many weeks, I did my best to pretend as if she didn’t exist. Occasionally, I would give her money, but only out of guilt. I would drop a few coins into her hand, but avoid making eye contact and walk away quickly. Eventually after enough of these encounters, we began to talk. I got to know her and hear about her family, while at the same time sharing about my own. Our interactions no longer were simply perfunctory but a reflection of something more. I knew each week that my few shekels were not going to change her life, but the authentic connection we made impacted the both of us. I felt joy knowing her and helping her as best as I was able. This is the true joy of giving tzedekah, and it is also the true joy that is at the heart of Purim. In times like our own when we are reminded of the vulnerability of Jewish life, let’s not escape into the temptation of drunken revelry. Rather, we should embrace the true spirit of the day and give of ourselves to those in need. Most importantly, we should do so with a smile, with empathy, and with joy.