March 2017

Mordecai recorded these events (the Purim story). And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, near and far, 21charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year—22the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor. 23The Jews accordingly assumed as an obligation that which they had begun to practice and which Mordecai prescribed for them. (Esther 9:20-23)

This passage from Megillat Esther-The Book of Esther charges us to celebrate the festival of Purim. The feasting and merrymaking are easy to understand and fun to do, and who doesn’t like receiving Sheloach Manot-food baskets filled with delicious Hamantaschen and other sweets, but the last instruction seems a bit at odds with the rest of the festival. What are these presents to the poor, called matanot l’evyonim and why give them to the poor at all?

The best definition for matanot l’evyonim is charity or Tzedakah to the poor. This is always a noble and worthy act for us to do. We say it’s a mitzvah—a good deed. Yes, it is, but it is also a mitzvah in the commandment sense of the definition of Mitzvah. We are commanded on Purim to give to the needy. Matanot l’evyonim in its original intent was a genuine expression of gratitude for being saved from imminent destruction by one’s enemy. The analogy was that just as we were saved from our enemy, so too, can we save the poor from their enemy of poverty. We are commanded to care for the poor, so too, on the festival when we were saved from our enemies and told to rejoice in the most celebratory way, we also need to not forget why we are rejoicing and remember that we too, were struggling for our very lives. Giving to the poor within our community is the best way to remember the plight we were once in.

This Matanot l’evyonim can easily be called giving “charity” to the poor. The Hebrew word we associate with charity is Tzedakah. Tzedakah is usually translated as charity but that’s not the exact definition. Tzedakah is from the word Tzedek or justice. –doing justice” is the mitzvah-command. Giving to the poor financially is just one way of doing what is just and right in this world.

The word “charity” actually is from Christian thought. The word charity from old English is derived from the Latin word cartitas, meaning love. The first century Apostle Paul sought to propitiate Jesus’s mission of providing to the poor as an act of love of Jesus. He noted in the Book of Acts from the New Testament that the spirit of “cheerful” charity is more important than how often and how much one gives:  In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

Judaism has a completely different approach to what Tzedakah is. Not everything can be boiled down to just rich and poor. The Torah teaches us that attention to the issues of poverty is vast and will never subside. There will always be those in dire need, but we must strive to help everyone, no matter what state they are in, financial, emotional, social, or political. Tzedakah for the rabbis is what one should minimally do for the poor. And even the poor should strive to give Tzedakah. Why? Because, there always is someone less fortunate than they are. Finally, giving Tzedakah through the act of matanot l’evyonim helps us remember that everyone should celebrate one’s salvation present or future, no matter their financial status.

I want to suggest two wonderful places to give Matanot l’evyonim this Purim season. The first is to JFS’s Syrian Relief project. The other is to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Usually during Pesach or the High Holy Days is a great time to give to this outstanding organization, but Purim with its Matanot l’evyonim mitzvah is an opportune time to give tzedakah. There are many more worthy places to give matanot l’evyonim this year, however, I believe with these two Jewish based programs, we can fully celebrate the joy of Purim and the commandment to remember those in dire need. The links online for you to donate are below.

May we all have a joyous and fun Purim this month with family and friends. And may we all help those in dire need also celebrate the joy of salvation.

Hag Purim Sameach,
Rabbi, Dr. Larry Bazer

JFS’s Syrian Refugee Project
Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger