For the week ending 22 March 2008 / 15 Adar II 5768

Giving to Those Who Have

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Hilary in Austin, TX

Dear Rabbi,
On Purim there are two mitzvot of giving: 1) to the poor and 2) to friends and acquaintances. I understand the first: to enable the needy to participate in and enjoy the holiday. I don’t understand the second. Why give to people who already have? For one, it seems like an unnecessary expense; and if the money is being spent, wouldn’t it be better to give that extra money to the poor as well?

Dear Hilary,

Interestingly, the mitzvah to give to the poor can be fulfilled with money, objects or food. The mitzvah of gifts to friends can only be fulfilled with food ready to be enjoyed on Purim. Even the poor are required to give such food gifts to others. This reveals the idea that the gifts to friends is less about charity or monetary help than it is about sharing and joy – things which everyone is in need of. Another difference is that the charity-gift is to be given as one gift each to at least two needy people while the friend-gift must include two foods to at least one person.

Despite the differences and different purposes between both types of gifts, one should be careful to spend at least as much money on the gifts to the poor as on the gifts to the friend (or friends). And here your comment is very appropriate, as many unfortunately spend much more on friends who have than on the unfortunate. Also, given the joy-sharing nature of the friend-gift, one should give precedence to giving to those with whom his friendship is lacking, thereby transforming the friend-gift to a friend-making gift.

But what is the source of the friend-making gift?

The diabolic Haman was a member of the wicked nation Amalek, descendent of Esau, who, unprovoked, attacked the Jews in the desert after having left Egypt. The power of Amalek draws from Jews alienating themselves from G-d and from one another. This is evident from the verse, “Recall how Amalek happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary” (Duet. 25:18). Our Sages note that this event occurred right after many Jews complained against G-d, thereby weakening their dedication to Him and causing them to divisively tail behind the rest of the nation (Rashi).

Following the example of his ancestors, Haman also intended to capitalize on this dual divisiveness among the Jews to catalyze their downfall and destruction. Despite the Jews' having been warned not to partake of the king’s debauched festivities of indulgence, many attended nonetheless. This represented their repudiation of G-d and resulted in a separation between them and their Jewish brethren. It is at this point that Haman presents his plan of genocide to the king by prefacing with the two-fold accusation, “There is a certain people in your kingdom who are scattered and separate” (Esther 3:8). Our sources explain that Haman intended to incite Divine wrath against the Jews who had both departed from G-d and had estranged themselves from one another.

It was to counter this destructive snare of spiritual and national divisiveness that Esther commanded Mordechai, “Go gather together all the Jews” (4:16). If Jewish unity would be restored Haman and the force of Amalek and Esau would be powerless to capitalize on the wedge between the Jews and G-d. And that’s what happened. The Jews united in penitential fasting and prayer, bridging the spiritual and national schisms that carved the abyss threatening their demise. In this, the righteous Esther followed teh example of her ancestor Jacob, who, upon gathering himself into his deathbed, gathered his sons to implore them to remain loyal to G-d and each other (Gen. 49). Thus our Sages taught, “Jacob’s ingathering and the ingathering of his sons saved him from the hand of Esau”.

It is to celebrate the miraculous repentance, reunification and resulting redemption of the Jews that Mordechai and Esther commemorated the 14th and 15th of Adar “As the days when the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month that was reversed for them from grief to joy and from mourning to a festive day to make them days of feasting and joy, and sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor” (9:22).

Given this perspective, we see that given the right intention, far from being an unnecessary expense, sending friend-making gifts on Purim fulfills a vital need for every Jew regardless of his material standing. Today, more than ever, we are sorely in need for mutual love and respect among our fellow Jews. Despite many Jew’s favorable fiscal status and strong financial base, our infighting, bickering, jealousies, grudges and slandering spiritually and nationally impoverishes us to the point of fraternal bankruptcy, thereby exposing us to the most diabolical diatribes and designs of our foes.

May the mitzvah giving of Purim truly inspire and encourage us to gather ourselves back to G-d and to one another such that we rightly retain the title “Children of Israel” and thereby conquer the forces plotting our destruction. Amen.

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