Be Giving, It's Purim
Last week, in my Rosh Chodesh Adar-themed post, I said, "Purim is an easy holiday to love, what with the costumes and the drinking, the heroes and the villains and the excuses for general levity" (yeah, I just quoted myself). It's also, actually, kind of an easy holiday to hate, what with the blatant sexism, the obscene violence and the disregard for the sanctity of human life. However, in the midst of these two potentially mutually exclusive views of the holiday, we're also commanded to do some pretty important mitzvot (commandments) that often get lost in the levity or just simply ignored.
In order of how likely I think the average Jew is to know about each commandment, they are as follows:
1. Reading (or in most cases, listening to) Megillat Esther (commonly called "The Megillah")
2. Giving gifts of food to friends in the form of mishloach manot (or, in Yiddish, as I grew up calling it, shaloch manos)
3. Taking part in a Purim seudah (festive meal)
4. Giving gifts to the poor (called, on Purim, matanot l’evonim)
I want to focus on #2 and #4, the ones about giving things away. I've written a few posts about gifts before (here, here and here for examples), all subjective and based on my own opinion. On Purim, though, the rules are specific and mandated (with thanks to this site from the OU for helping me brush up on the specifics), hardly subjective at all (except in the way that all Jewish interpretation is up for more interpretation). We are commanded to give mishloach manot, "gifts of portions," in the form of prepared foods or drinks, and these gifts are intended specifically for friends. I love that the gifts have to be food, and prepared ones at that. I think those conditions say something about the immediacy of how to share with your friends and the benefit of giving a gift that can't be put away for later. (As a side note, you get mitzvah bonus points if you send your mishloach manot through a messenger rather than delivering them yourself, though I fail to see a connection there to how to treat friends generally.)
Additionally, we are each supposed to give gifts of money to at least two poor people during the day on Purim. Picture, if you will, leaving a daytime megillah reading in Center City, likely drunk, and walking through Love Park to find some homeless people. Maybe you have routes that you typically walk to avoid the ceaseless pleas for spare change, but on this day, you're supposed to go straight up to people in need and offer. You're not supposed to put too much effort into quantifying the need, rather, if someone asks, they're considered needy. More amazingly, even people who are themselves poor and in need of charity are required to do this mitzvah.
So, why the Hebrew school lesson in my advice column? Because as nice as it is to have things go well for each of us individually, and as nice as it is to have your questions answered and your quibbles with co-workers or friends validated, Purim provides an opportunity to exercise the art of putting other people first. It's not an easy thing to do, on Purim or otherwise, but it's a value and an experience that we can take from this silly, drunken, violent, maybe even debauched holiday and carry into the rest of our lives. Giving gifts to the poor on Purim doesn't exempt you from giving tzedakah (charity) the rest of the year, and putting other people first for this one day doesn't give you a free pass for the other 364. What if we always made sure our friends' immediate needs were attended to and that they always knew how much we cared? What if we approached every person with a story about needing change to get back to Camden with the kind of empathy we're required to have on this day? (If you've never heard this line, you haven't been in Philly very long.)
Regardless of how you choose to celebrate (and I hope, if you're in your 20s and 30s and live in Philadelphia, your celebration will include the Purim Dance Party on Saturday night at World Cafe Live), consider giving away four things: two gifts of food to friends, and two gifts of money to people in need. The other parts of the holiday are fun, and I certainly encourage everyone to take advantage of the multitude of megillah readings and celebrations happening throughout the city. Beyond that, there really is nothing quite like giving money to homeless people while dressed like a grogger, and the act of giving can have a real and lasting impact, both for you and for the recipient.
Happy Purim, and be well,