Together, we survive. Jews have always been responsive to fellow Jews in need. If a Jew was in debtor’s prison, the community would raise money to pay the debt. If a poor widow was struggling, the community would close ranks around her and help her. Together, is how we survived. When we get into trouble, we depend on one another and get through it together.
It, therefore, comes as no surprise that study after study found Jews to be more likely to give charity than any other group. Our feeling of responsibility toward our fellow is ingrained not only from youth, not only from birth, but from time immemorial.
Already in biblical times, no Jewish family would celebrate a festive meal without inviting people in need to their table. Look after G-d’s children, the Jewish people would say, and He will look after yours. The Jewish people are a family, and family doesn’t let one another go hungry. Once the ethic of giving was ingrained in us toward our fellow Jews, it became second nature toward all, which is why Jews today are more charitable toward non-Jewish causes than any other group.
It is, therefore, rather expected that when our sages established the ritual traditions for the holiday of Purim, they included an element of charity. On the day of Purim, Jews are required to give charity to at least two poor Jews. This is called Matanot La’evyonim, enabling rich and poor to celebrate together.
All this makes perfect sense and is in keeping with the Jewish ethos of giving. However, on Purim, our sages established a most unusual tradition called Mishloach Manot. This consists of delivering at least two food items to at least one fellow Jew. The odd thing about this ritual is that the recipient need not be poor. This is not about charity. This is about reaching out and connecting with others.
A friend of mine puts it like this. On Halloween, children run around asking for candy and come home with a bag full. On Purim, children run around distributing candy and come home to a table full of candy. While it is a beautiful sentiment, one wonders why this ritual was instituted for this holiday rather than any other. There are many explanations for this delightful tradition, and I would like to share one of them.
Purim is the only Jewish holiday that commemorates a nationwide movement of repentance. Our ancestors were somewhat lax in their Jewish observance, but when Haman proposed to annihilate them, they resolved to change their ways en masse and returned to G-d together. Rather than bowing to Haman, they turned their hearts exclusively to G-d. Rather than partying with the noble Persians at the king’s table, they celebrated Shabbat at their own tables.
One usually thinks of repentance as an intensely private experience. I can’t repent for your sins or you for mine; we must each repent for our own. Moreover, most people commit their sins in private and repent in private, leaving others completely unaware. In fact, it is considered disrespectful to G-d to confess one’s sins in public.
Nevertheless, the fact is that Jews rely on each other for repentance just as much as for financial assistance. Spiritual need and financial need are not all that different. Just as the community helps the individual in financial need so does the community help the individual in spiritual need.
Our sages taught that when a single Jew repents, G-d forgives the entire world. This means that if I repent for me, I help you, and if you repent for you, you help me. Since each of our repentances counts for both of us, it follows that if we both repent, it is as if we each repented twice—once when I repented and once when you repented. Can you imagine the effect of millions of people repenting at the same time? It is as if each person repented millions of times.
The same is true when you do a Mitzvah. When one Jew does a Mitzvah, he or she has done a single Mitzvah. If a hundred Jews do a mitzvah together, each is rewarded for a hundred Mitzvos. Can you imagine what happens when ten million Jews decide to do a single Mitzvah together? Each Jew receives the merit of ten million Mitzvos.
Rabbi Dovber Schneuri, the second Rebbe of Lubavitch, famously said that when two Jews meet each has the benefit of two G-dly souls over one animal soul. The animal soul is selfish and has no interest in helping another. As the Talmud states, no one sins for another. The G-dly soul is unselfish and is always interested in helping another. If I can share my Mitzvah with you, I am more than happy to do so. Thus, my G-dly soul and your G-dly soul work together against your animal soul. My G-dly soul and your G-dly soul also work together against my animal soul.
This explains why we send Mishloach Manot on Purim. When Jews in Persia repented en masse, each Jew was aided by the repentance of every other Jew. When Jews in Persia performed Mitzvot, their Mitzvah was exponentially multiplied by the Mitzvot of every other Jew. Rather than ten million Mitzvot, they had ten million times ten million Mitzvot. Rather than ten million repentances, they had ten million times that number.
The power of that thunderous Mitzvah and the crescendo of that powerful repentance arose before G-d and shattered every obstacle. Saved from Haman’s designs, the Jews rejoiced. Now it makes perfect sense that in their celebrations they thanked each other. They did so by ordaining that every Jew give at least one other Jew two food items. One to represent repentance and the other to represent the Mitzvah.
Thus, the call of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory, to send Mishloach Manot to every Jew that we can reach. In the spirit of celebrating together, we should work to ensure that no Jew is left out. If you know someone who won’t otherwise receive a packet of Mishloach Manot—a packet of love, go ahead and send one. It will multiply the Purim joy exponentially.