We will soon be celebrating Purim, a minor, post biblical, and probably Babylonian festival which has been absorbed into Judaism. The book of Esther tells of the evil Haman who is determined to kill the Jews, of Mordechai the Jew who finds favour with the King for having foiled an assassination plot, and of Esther herself, dependant relative of Mordechai, who is married to the King after he has banished the first Queen Vashti, for insufficient respect. It is a strange festival in so many ways. Probably a fictional retelling of an older myth, it deals with anything but fiction – the recurrent problem of anti-Semitism. Unusually the book does not ever invoke the name or presence of God, and for the first and only time in our texts or our traditions, it takes pleasure in taking revenge on the ones who wanted to destroy the Jews.
Purim is a sort of inverted, upside down and inside out kind of festival. Beginning with the evil Haman wishing for all the Jews to be killed, it ends with the death of Haman and all who seek to do his work. Many of our customs are deliberately subverted – we wear fancy dress costumes to the service, are commanded to drink until we cannot tell the difference between the phrase “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai” (Talmud Meg 7b). We create Purim spiels which make fun of the establishment, make a lot of noise and create a carnival atmosphere where ‘anything goes’, celebrate the marriage of Esther the nice Jewish girl to a non-Jewish potentate with many wives…. Really, nothing is sacred when we think about Purim.
But that said, Jewish values continue to shine through in this strange festival. Purim reminds us not only of the reality of being Jewish amid a world that seems determined to misunderstand us – but it also commands us to care for those who are needy in some way. The commandments to eat, drink and celebrate this festival are accompanied by the commandment to give tzedekah. In the Book of Esther, we read, “the same days on which Jews enjoyed relief from their foes, and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief to joy and from mourning to festival – they were to observe them as days of feasting and merry-making, and as an occasion for sending gifts [mishloach manot] and presents to the poor [matanot l’evyonim]” (Esther 9:22).
In our giving matanot l’evyonim on Purim, we are recognizing the need for an inversion in society, a turning upside down of the inequalities we see. By engaging in social action on Purim, we hope to erase the hierarchy of the haves and the have-nots. In this strange carnival time while forgetting our usual inhibitions and turning our usual routines on their heads, we are also reminded that we have the power to transform the lives of those who are suffering, to turn their days of mourning into days of joy.
Giving to the poor on Purim is something intrinsic to the celebration – so much so that even the poor must be given enough welfare from the community in order to be able to give two gifts to the poor themselves. In effect, this law blurs the distinction between rich and poor, so that the perceived gap in wealth is erased. Rather like the Talmudic dictum that one should be so drunk as not to be able to recognise the difference between blessing Mordechai and cursing Haman, one should also not notice the distinctions in monetary worth of different people. All are valued the same for this festival, as we experience a kind of ideal world where truly all are equal.
There are all sorts of ways in which you can participate in the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim. Many charities and social projects that are dedicated to improving the lot of the poorer in society. The important thing is that in the spieling and the laughing and the reading and the booing and the whole megillah of Purim activities, that this is one we can do quietly and easily.
image: collage by Caroline and Naomi of Esther made for scroll binding