Our Sages have revealed a deep and profound insight into human nature:
אדם נפעל כפי פעולותיו
“A person’s character is shaped by his actions.,” that is, person’s deeds will have a profound affect on his character. The 13th century Sefer Hachinuch, attributed to R. Aharon HaLevi, Mitzvah 16, develops this concept. A completely righteous person who for some reason engages in bad acts, e.g., he would become the chief executioner of a despotic evil king, would eventually become evil; his negative actions would influence his good character and change it to evil. Similarly, though, if an evil person would engage in good deeds, eventually those deeds will change his evil character to good.
We now understand why our Torah is a Torah of actions – mitzvot. The human being comprises an earthly body and an elevated, spiritual soul. How does one transform his earthy body into a more spiritual one? By engaging it in holy deeds designed to bring holiness into the person. The constant influence of holy deeds slowly but surely penetrates our souls and creates within us good character instead of bad. Each mitzvah corresponds to a specific facet of the soul, and, through them, we are able to create a wholesome, balanced, and sterling character within ourselves.
For each Jewish holiday, the Torah prescribes special mitzvot in honor of that special time designed to help us absorb the unique message of the specific holiday. For example, Pesach commemorates and celebrates our redemption from Egyptian slavery to freedom. To help us integrate Pesach’s lessons, we celebrate the Passover seder to tell the story of our exodus to our children, eat only matzah to remember the slavery and our hasty exodus from Egypt, and eat maror, bitter herbs, to recall the bitter slavery from which we were freed. Through performing these Torah commanded mitzvot, we imbue ourselves with the essence of the holiday: On Pesach we do not merely reminisce over what occurred to our ancestors; on Pesach, on a certain level, we, ourselves, are transformed and become free.
Similarly, on Sukkot, to remember and celebrate Hashem’s protection throughout our 40-year journey in the wilderness, we “live” in a sukkah for seven days and ourselves experience divine protection.
Via performing these actions – the mitzvot– the ideas that they represent penetrate the soul and imbue it with the message, changing it for the better.
When the אנשי כנסת הגדולה – the Men of the Great Assembly- added Purim to the Jewish calendar, they instituted four mitzvot that one needs to fulfill on Purim. These four rabbinic commandments are: (1) מקרא מגילה – To hear the Megillah read both night and day. (2) סעודה – To have a festive meal of celebration on Purim day. (3) מתנות לאביונים -To give charity to at least two poor people. (4) משלוח מנות – To send two foods to a friend. Designed to capture the essence of the Purim miracle, these mitzvot help us absorb its message into our souls. Each of the four mitzvot helps us appreciate a different aspect of the Purim miracle and provides us with the tools we need to maximize the lessons of the holiday.
The first mitzvah, to read the Megillah on Purim night and, again, the next day, gives us an appreciation of the miracle that Hashem brought to His people, saving them from Haman’s murderous decree, which came about as a punishment for a sin that they had committed. When they completely repented from their sin, Hashem saved them. As we listen to the story as related in the Megillah, we appreciate how, behind the scenes and unbeknownst to anyone, Hashem carefully orchestrated the salvation of the Jewish people.
Here is the story in a nutshell.
The Megillah begins with a lavish, over the top, 180-day party made by Achashverosh, king of 127 lands, in the third year of his kingdom. After the long party for the kingdom’s high officials, Achashverosh made a second seven-day party for the residents of Shushan, the capital city. King Achashverosh invited even his Jewish subjects to the second party, and provided kosher food and kosher wine for his honored guests.
Mordechai, a prophet and the leader of the Jewish people, directed the Jews not to attend the party. King Achashverosh was serving drinks in the vessels of the Holy Temple, and he wore the holy clothing of the High priest. He did this to demonstrate his belief that these sacred items would never again be used by the Jews, and that they would remain permanently banished from their Homeland. How could a Jew be present as Achashverosh made a mockery of the Holy Temple? Yet, most of the people ignored Mordechai’s directive; they attended and had themselves a ball. The unfortunate upshot from enjoying the forbidden party was to put the Jewish people in spiritual danger and rendered them subject to Haman’s evil decree.
Had the Jewish people been a unified entity, Hashem would not have allowed Haman to bring a decree to annihilate them, for when the Jews are unified, they are invincible. They were, however, at that time, fragmented and vulnerable, as we see from this passage in the Talmud (Megillah 13b), which related
אמר רבא ליכא דידע לישנא בישא כהמן
Rava said: No one knew how to speak lashon hora (evil speech) better than Haman. And what was the ultimate lashon hora that he said?
ח) וַיֹּאמֶר הָמָן לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ
And Haman said to the king Achashverosh. “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples, in all the provinces of your realm.” (Esther 3:8).
Our Sages explain Haman’s statement to mean that the Jewish people were scattered and dispersed among themselves – they were not unified; and, because of that, they are vulnerable and we can annihilate them.
At the party, through a strange series of events, Achashverosh had his queen, Vashti, killed, and after conducting an extensive search for a new queen, crowned Esther, Mordechai’s niece, as his queen. Hashem thus put Esther in the palace where she would be in a position to beseech the king on behalf of her people should it be needed.
Shortly after Esther became the queen, Achashverosh appointed Haman his second in command.
Touting his new power, Haman decreed that all must bow down to him when he passed by. Mordechai, however, would not bow since he was from the tribe of Binyomin, the only one of Yaakov’s sons who did not bow down to Haman’s ancestor, Esav. Hence, Mordechai was not permitted to bow down to Haman. In his rage, Haman asked Achashverosh to exterminate all the Jews, and Achashverosh granted him permission. The date was set for the 13thday of the month of Adar. All non-Jews would be encouraged to kill any Jew they could, and the Jews’ possessions and wealth would become theirs.
Letters went out to Achashverosh’s kingdom that on the 13th of Adar, all gentiles are encouraged to kill every Jew that they could, men, women and children, with the goal of totally eradicating the Jewish nation from the face of the earth.
Upon hearing Haman’s decree, Mordechai sent a message to Esther to go to the king and save her people. Esther refused, saying that it would be suicidal to go to the king without having first been summoned. Mordechai told her that time is of essence and that she cannot wait until the king calls for her; she must risk her life.
Esther agreed, but only under one condition. She told Mordechai.
טז) לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים
“Go and gather all the Jews together and fast for me three days and three nights …”
All the Jews of Shushan must join and fast for three days and pray for her success.
Mordechai conveyed Esther’s request to the people and they agreed to fulfill it. They would join as one, to support Esther when she would approach the king unsolicited. We, today, struggle with a one day fast; it is hard to imagine how difficult a three day fast would have been, but all the people did it.
Armed with the fast and the prayers of all the Jews in Shuhan, Esther agreed to approach the king even though she had not been requested. In fasting, the people repented for the illegal enjoyment at Achashverosh’s party, and, in uniting in fasting and praying behind Esther, they corrected the second problem of being fractured. This was the turning point in the story. Unifying in the fast and prayer accomplished its goal, allowing Esther to succeed. Her request to the king bore fruit and the decree of Haman was overturned, and he was hanged on the gallows that he had built for Mordechai.
There are many twists and turns in the details of the story that reveal how Hashem had put all the pieces in place for the salvation long before Haman’s decree. When the Jewish people repented, Hashem merely activated them, and the salvation was right at hand.
The Purim story took place towards the end of the 70-year exile, between the first and second Holy Temples. These were extremely difficult times for the Jews because they had experienced the trauma of the Holy Temple’s destruction and were expelled from the land of Israel. Without the Holy Temple and its daily service to protect them, and finding themselves in a foreign land, the Jewish people could easily have thought that they were done for, having seemingly lost their connection to Hashem. The Purim miracle proved that even in the darkest of times, Hashem is always with us, protecting us behind the scenes.
This is why the Purim holiday is so meaningful to us. We are in exile now for over 2,000 years, and it is heartening to understand, through the Purim story, that Hashem is still with us, even in these dark times. As we listen to the Purim story, we are able to internalize that, just as then, Hashem stood behind the scenes pulling the strings that brought about His People’s salvation, so too, He is doing the same for us now. Though we cannot see Hashem putting each piece carefully into place to bring the ultimate salvation, when the correct time comes, Hashem will activate the process, and all the pieces will fall into place and miraculously bring the Mashiach and the final redemption.
Surprisingly, on Purim we do not say Hallel, the prayer added to the Festival and Chanukah prayers, to praise and thank Hashem for His salvation. The Talmud explains that reading the Megillah on Purim takes the place of saying Hallel. We learn from this that as we hear the story of Purim read, our hearts should fill with praise and thanksgiving to Hashem for the miracle that He brought for our people.
This realization is great cause for celebration with food and drink, which brings us to Purim’s second mitzvah, having a festive meal. Because Haman posed a physical threat to the Jewish people by seeking to kill every Jew, we celebrate physically with food and drink, something that people enjoy, to show that we are still alive and fully enjoying life. By eating and drinking for the sake of the mitzvah, we counteract the illegal enjoyment that the people had many years ago, at Achashverosh’s party. The festive Purim meal is often celebrated with relatives and friends, also creating love and friendship between Jews.
This second vital component is the source of the last two mitzvot, giving charity to the poor and giving food presents to each other. Their goal is to create unity in the Jewish nation.
Why is being unified such a powerful force for the Jewish Nation?
The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato 1707-1747) writes in מאמר החכמה.
וצריך שתדע שהנה האדון ב”ה הוא אחד, ואין הארתו מתחזקת אלא במה שמתאחד, והנה ישראל אע”פ שבאישיהם הם רבים נקראים גוי אחד, והם ראוים לשתתחזק בם הארתו ית’
You must know that Hashem is אחד – One, and His influence can only be manifest in something that is also one. The Jewish nation, even though it comprises individuals, is called one nation, and only through them can Hashem convey His influence to the world.
Our mission as a nation is to reflect Hashem’s godliness to the world. By keeping the perfect laws of the Torah, we become models of perfect behavior in all areas of life and show the world the greatness of Hashem and His perfect prescription for life. If the world saw one completely unified nation, Hashem’s nation, all doing the right thing, the world would follow our example. This was the Divine plan for humanity: that the Jewish nation, through keeping the Torah, be the role models for the rest of the world, and then, through following our example, they would also become elevated.
When, however, the Jewish nation is not unified in its fulfillment of the Torah and each person acts as he sees fit, we do not present a unified picture to the rest of the world, and we fall short of our mission. This is why Jewish unity is so essential to our existence. It defines our purpose in the world. When we are fulfilling the purpose for which we were created, we are indispensable to the world, and, thus, invulnerable. But when we do not fulfill our mission in the world, we are dispensable and can be destroyed.
This idea is very beautifully expressed in the Talmud, Tractate Berachot 6a.
After informing us that just as we wear Tefillin, Hashem, so to speak, also wears Tefillin, Rav Nachman son of R’ Yitzchak said to R’ Chiya son of R’ Avin, “What does it say in Hashem’s Tefillin?”
אמר ליה) וּמִי כְּעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל גּוֹי אֶחָד בָּאָרֶץ
He answered him, “Who is like your nation Israel, one nation in the land.”
Our Tefillin contain the Shema, which proclaims Hashem as the One and only G-d. We proudly wear them daily on our arms and heads declaring that we are the nation of the One and Only G-d. At the same time, Hashem also (so to speak) wears His Tefillin, which proclaim our oneness as His people. When we do Hashem’s will as one unified nation, we reflect to the world the oneness of Hashem.
When an orchestra’s different musicians join to play a Beethoven symphony and obey the conductor’s directions, the music that emanates from their different instruments produces the magnificent and harmonious music that Beethoven composed. If, however, they ignore the conductor and play what they want to play and when they want to play it, not only will it sound nothing like what Beethoven intended his symphony to be, but it will be a musical disaster.
In the same sense, when we all follow our conductor, Hashem, and keep the Torah as He has instructed us, our orchestra conveys His beautiful harmonious message to the world. But when we each do as we please, we convey no unified message, and we are not fulfilling our mission, so we are vulnerable.
This is the basis for the last two mitzvot, (1) charity to the poor and (2) food presents to each other. Since the unification of the nation was vital for the salvation, creating unity must be a take-away of the Purim holiday. It counteracts the lashon hora that Haman told Achashverosh, that the Jews are “scattered and dispersed,” and that every man is for himself.
How do we create unity? By taking care of each other and by giving to each other.
Showing concern for the needy by giving them money that they need, shows that we are one people who feel responsible to take care of each other.
Giving presents to one another fosters closeness and love between us. It would seem that there already is a closeness between the people, or they would not be giving to one another. However, our Sages teach us a counterintuitive concept: Conventional thinking is that we give to those whom we love as an expression of the love that we feel for them. The reality, the rabbis teach us, is just the opposite – we love those to whom we give! In other words, giving is what creates the love in the first place. We love our children because we have given them so much of ourselves. Try it some time. Find someone you don’t particularly like and find a way to help that person. It may take one or two attempts, but the relationship will surely turn for the better.
This is one of the themes of Purim, viz, creating friendships and bonds between Jews. We accomplish this by taking care of the needy and sending presents of food to others.
What a beautiful sight it is on Purim to see so many families, often in costume, crisscrossing the streets of our town delivering משלוח מנות to each other. The feeling of unity and friendship that pervades the streets of our community is a sight to behold and a privilege to be a part of.