The Mitzvot of Purim: Living Our Values to Make a Better World

This coming Tuesday, I will join the students and faculty of Schechter Manhattan, and Jews around the world, in celebrating the silliest holiday of the Jewish year, Purim.  We will dress in costume, participate in carnival games, sing, dance, and laugh. Woven into all the fun of Purim there is a hope, that the world as we know it, frequently scary and dangerous, often broken and filled with sadness, will be transformed, turned topsy-turvy, into the world we aspire to live in– a hope to change things מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹב, from grief to joy and from mourning to festivity (Esther 9:22).

 

This aspiration for changing the world for the better is actualized in the four mitzvot, religious obligations, Jews fulfill on Purim- reading the Book of Esther, giving gifts to one another, giving help to those in need, and participating in a joyous meal together.  Each mitzvah carries Jewish values that help us create the change that Purim calls for.

 

Reading the Book of Esther, kriat hamegilah.  Engagement with the holy texts of our people is a core Jewish practice and value.  Reading the Book of Esther aloud in community is fun and silly, the story filled with dramatic irony and plot twists.

It is also beautiful and challenging. We are faced with essential questions: What is the relationship between the Jewish people and the other cultures and societies we live in?  Should we always be proudly Jewish or are there times to hide our Jewish identity? How do people in power wield their authority? How are women treated in society? What are the roots of antisemitism?  Of all hatred? Why is God so hard to see in our own story? And many more. Torah study, like reading and listening to the Book of Esther carefully, helps us to grapple with who we want to be, what is important to us, and the type of impact we hope to have in the world.  We will read the Book of Esther with the Schechter Manhattan students and faculty in school on Tuesday morning, and I encourage you to join a synagogue community for the reading on Monday evening. (If you are not affiliated with a particular synagogue, please feel free to be in touch with me at benjaminmann@schechtermanhattan.org and I will be pleased to help you find a good match for you and your family for Purim eve.)

Giving gifts to others, mishloach manot. Showing care for others is another core Jewish practice and value.  Mishloach manot are small baskets of treats we give each other.  They are also an expression of being included in a loving community.  We send one another the message that we appreciate having each other, that we value what each one of us contributes, and that we are ready to support each other in times of need.  The embrace of a loving community serves as a foundation of happiness. The Schechter Manhattan Parent Association has once again organized a mishloach manot program for our community.  If you have not yet ordered your mishloach manot, and would like to participate, then please contact Tali Etra at talietra@gmail.com.

Gifts to others in need, matanyot le’evyonim.  There are always people in need of our help and support.  On Purim, we extend our joy by reaching out to those in society who need help.  Giving tzedakah is a core Jewish practice and value. It is an essential act of making the world closer to how we hope it should be.  Purim is a great time to give. The West Side Campaign Against Hunger is a fantastic local organization feeding hungry people right here in our neighborhood.  Schechter Manhattan 7th grade students volunteer each year at the WSCAH food pantry. The Riverdale Fund for the Needy is another local organization, that distributes basic, critical monthly support (for food, rent, medicine, utilities) to dozens of Jewish households in need.  The Schechter Manhattan PA has offered another interpretation of the mitzvah of matanot le’evyonim this year, seeing that our planet is in an impoverished state.  They are rallying our community to support the Earth, by collecting funds for Hazon: The Jewish Lab For Sustainability, an organization working to strengthen Jewish life and contributes to a more environmentally sustainable world for all.  I hope that you will consider giving matanot le’evyonim, to these good causes or to other worthwhile charities.

Participating in a joyous meal together, seudat purim.  While carnival activities are certainly a fun addition to celebrating Purim, they are not the central way that we celebrate in Jewish tradition.  When we want to express and feel real joy, we eat together. We have seudot mitzvah, feasts that reflect our commitments, at weddings and bnei mitzvah celebrations, on holidays and each shabbat.  Sitting around a table with family and friends, enjoying food, conversation, song, and company is made holy in these moments.  Purim is no exception. I encourage you to find time on Purim to gather for a meal with your family and friends. While enjoying foods and drinks of your choice, perhaps open a conversation with your children by asking: What do we imagine would make the world a better, happier place?  And, if you have children who are Schechter Manhattan students, ask them to sing a Purim song they learned with you. I promise, this will all feel great.

To be sure, we also have opportunities to live out these values throughout the year.  At Schechter Manhattan we study Torah each day. We care for each other and strive to create a loving learning community.  We participate in community service projects and give tzedakah. And we gather for celebratory meals. Bringing these all together on Purim makes for an especially powerful day, filled with our most cherished values and hope for the positive impact we can make on the future.

Wishing you a joyous and meaningful Purim!