Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Among the unique features of Purim are the mitzvos of giving to one’s fellow Jew. We are obligated to give mishloach manos and matanos la’evyonim. No other festival requires such chesed. What is the thematic connection between these mitzvos and Purim?

When Haman approaches Achashverosh with a plan to destroy the Jewish people, he outlines why they do not deserve to live: “There is one nation scattered and dispersed among the peoples.” The commentaries explain that Haman’s criticism of the Jews was accurate and helped convince the king that Hashem would not protect them. Haman argued that the Jews were not unified, so they lacked the Divine protection they merited when they were.

Accordingly, one of the most powerful ways of annuling the decree of destruction from Above was to reunify the Jewish people. Rav Yehonasan Eibschutz, ztz”l, explains that this was Esther’s intention when she instructed Mordechai: “Go, assemble all the Jews to be found in Shushan, and fast for me.” She recognized that only a concerted effort could overturn the decree.

This approach succeeded. Indeed, according to the Vilna Gaon, ztz”l, several verses in the megillah demonstrate that the Jews displayed great unity when they finally gained the upper hand against their enemies. “The rest of the Jews throughout the king’s provinces gathered together and defended themselves (amad al nafsham).” The Gaon notes that the verb amad is singular, for they were completely unified, as if they were one entity. Soon afterward, when Mordechai instituted the festival of Purim, “The Jews undertook (kibel) to continue the practice they had begun….” Again, the word kibel is singular. The Sifsei Chaim adds a similar explanation to the famous verse in which, according to Chazal, the Jews willingly reaccepted the Torah: “They affirmed and undertook… to observe these two days….” The Hebrew term for “undertook” is read as kiblu, in the plural form, but it is written as kibel, in the singular, because they accepted the Torah in complete unity.

Given the significance of unity in the Purim story, it is easy to understand why Chazal instituted mitzvos in the interpersonal realm. Purim reminds us of the importance of unity within the Jewish people. Giving to our fellow Jews helps us care more about them. Moreover, it is not enough to give to one’s friends; he must not ignore the destitute, who are easily forgotten. Therefore, in addition to mishloach manos, Chazal obligated us in matanos la’evyonim.

We now understand that disunity was a key factor in the decree against the Jews and that unity played a significant role in averting this decree. However, why were the Jews were so lacking in unity, and how were they were able to rectify this flaw? The Sifsei Chaim addresses this issue by citing Rabbeinu Yonah’s interpretation of a verse in Mishlei. Shlomo HaMelech writes: “L’ta’avah yevakesh nifrad….” Rabbeinu Yonah explains this verse to mean that a person who follow his desires will become alienated from his friends. For one’s natural desires are inherently self-serving and clash with everyone else’s. Accordingly, if a person cares only about himself, his goals will diverge from others’. A society full of such people possesses no unity. Haman understood that the Jewish people had become influenced by the ideologies and desires of its various host countries. Therefore, says the Sifsei Chaim, Haman stressed to Achashverosh that the Jews were “scattered and dispersed among the nations,” for that was the cause of their disunity. Each Jew’s goals were influenced by those of the surrounding societies, so there was no unity within the Jewish people as a whole.

Rabbeinu Yonah continues that the key to unity lies in a common goal: serving Hashem. The Jews’ role in the world is to promote this goal. When they do so, contention and competition dissipate, allowing them to focus on Hashem’s will. Thus, when the Torah was given at Sinai, the Jews were so unified that they were “like one man with one heart,” for they all focused on accepting the Torah; had they quarreled, they could have accepted it properly.

Esther recognized that the Jewish people’s disunity stemmed from divergent goals, which in turn stemmed from self-interest. Accordingly, she gathered the people together to fast. Abstaining from food and drink can reduce a person’s attachment to his physical desires and help him focus on Hashem. Thus, fasting helped the Jews reconnect with their true, common goal of doing Hashem’s will.

Similarly, it is no coincidence that the unity the Jews achieved when they fought their enemies came about after fasting on the thirteenth of Adar. Again, fasting weakened their own selfish desires and focused everyone on Hashem. Moreover, this level of unity enabled them to reaccept the Torah.

With this insight into the connection between physical desires and disunity, we can now gain a deeper understanding of mishloach manos and matanos la’evyonim. To reattain the level of unity that the Jews reached, we must detach ourselves from these desires. This task is especially difficult on Purim, when we greatly involve ourselves in the physical world. Giving gifts and money to our fellow Jews is an excellent way of not getting pulled down into the selfishness that results from self-gratification. By thinking about and giving to others, we can ensure that our eating and drinking place us closer to Hashem, not farther from Him.

Purim reminds us of the importance of Jewish national unity. May we focus all our energies on the common goal of fulfilling Hashem’s will.

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