A Feast for the Have-nots, Too

The gift is intended to provide more than just economic assistance to the poor; it is meant to help them emotionally, to enable them to feel part of a collective, to feel they are among equals on this festive day.

As in many tales, redemption, joy and good food form the basis of the Book of Esther's plot, which is driven forward primarily through feasts and banquets. The story begins with King Ahasuerus' royal feast, which leads to the removal of Queen Vashti and the rise of Esther, a Jew, to greatness. As the plot progresses, the dramatic reversal rests on the two feasts that Esther holds - for the king and for Haman, the Jews' persecutor.

Not surprisingly, immediately following their victory, the Jews begin holding feasts to celebrate their rescue. In the wake of these events, it is established that future generations will hold a Purim feast, where Jews will be instructed to drink almost to the point of intoxication. The Jews were redeemed through food and drink and will be redeemed in future through food and drink.

As usual, a careful study of the text brings the story's messages into sharper focus. The Megillah (Book of Esther) teaches us that Purim originates with the spontaneous feasts held to celebrate the victory; they were an unplanned grass-roots outburst of joy and festivity. The text proceeds to tell us that, only a year later, Mordecai institutionalizes the celebration, establishing it as an annual event. A comparison of the description of the first Purim with Mordecai's detailed instructions the following year underlines the chief element that is missing, in his eyes, from the spontaneous celebrations. They marked "a day of gladness and feasting, and a good day, and of sending portions one to another" (Esther 9:19). Yet Mordecai demands inclusion of an additional commandment in the institutionalized, annual festivity, which was excluded from the spontaneous celebrations: "gifts to the poor." Thus, the Megillah informs us: "And Mordecai wrote these things and sent letters unto all the Jews ... to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar ... that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor" (Esth. 9:20-22).

In Mordecai's view, without the poor, there is no room for perpetuating the feast and the celebrating. The poor's inclusion in the joyous circle is a prerequisite for transforming the spontaneous eruption of happiness from a unique, isolated celebration into an annual festive occasion that should be perpetuated and observed by future Jewish generations.

In the wake of Mordecai's demand, the commandment of "gifts to the poor" was established and it was determined that we must present a gift to at least two needy persons. These gifts are intended first and foremost to enable the poor to celebrate Purim and enjoy their own festive meal. Even if the donation and gift can be utilized more practically, the halakha (Jewish religious law) encourages both the poor and their benefactors to use them to join in the celebration and to feel they are part and parcel of the entire joyful Jewish community. The gift is intended to provide more than just economic assistance to the poor; it is meant to help them emotionally, to enable them to feel part of a collective, to feel they are among equals on this festive day. The commandment of giving gifts to the poor teaches us that happiness is not the exclusive province of the rich. If it is, the celebrations should be canceled.

Ostensibly, Mordecai's demand appears to be connected with the central role the commandment of charity plays in Jewish tradition in general. However, the commandment concerning gifts actually expresses Purim's most profound elements. Just as the festive meal and consumption of alcohol remind us of the feasts Esther held to rescue the Jews, this commandment reminds us of both the real factors that caused Persian Jewry's catastrophe and the route leading to its salvation.

When Haman appears before King Ahasuerus to reveal his scheme for the Jews' annihilation, he opens his speech with the fact that they are dispersed: "There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people" (Esth. 3:8). When Queen Esther decides to risk her life and join in the battle for her nation, her sole request from Mordecai is: "Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me" (Esth. 4:16). The Jews' scattering and dispersion, the Megillah tells us, leads to their catastrophe; their joining forces in a demonstration of solidarity and mutual responsibility is the first step toward their redemption.

The commandment to hold a feast on Purim is Jewish tradition's way of helping us remember the events of the past, to be moved by them again and to integrate into our routine lives a few moments of silliness and unrestrained joy. In contrast, the commandment concerning gifts to the poor is an instrument through which our tradition helps us learn the lessons of the past.

The annual reading of the Megillah on Purim reminds us that the spontaneous outburst of a feeling of solidarity and mutual responsibility occurs in times of disaster. On days of feasting and joy, we must remember that mutual responsibility in the Jewish community is, to a great extent, a life preserver that can rescue us from those difficult times.

Not surprisingly, Maimonides succinctly expresses this fact in his statement that "gifts for the poor deserve more attention than the festive meal and gifts for friends because there is no greater, richer happiness than bringing joy to the hearts of needy people, orphans, widows and proselytes" ("Mishneh Torah," laws governing Purim, Chapter 3, section 17).

As we prepare costumes for our children and organize, with sticky fingers, gifts for our friends, as we debate which parties and events to attend, we should also remember that redemption is bound up not only with feasting and celebrations - certainly not only with food - but also, and perhaps mainly, with our capacity for enabling all Jews to participate in the joy and celebration.

The author is the associate director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, and a Reform rabbi.