By Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner
Purim commemorates the Jewish survival from genocidal decree in the Persian Empire during the 6th Century BCE. The celebration of Purim today entails the fulfillment of three Mitzvot, which means religious obligation or commandments. On the night and day of Purim, Jews around the world read the book of Esther as a remembrance of the miracle of survival. Additionally, Jews observe Purim through giving gifts of food to each other, as well as to the poor. Both of these commandments are alluded to in chapter nine of The Book of Esther.
The act of gift giving in of itself is a symbol of freedom for the Jewish people. The giving of gifts can only be performed if one has a feeling of ownership for the item being given. A person enslaved or living under strict rule lacks the sense of ownership that comes from being a free individual. Freedom’s core is best expressed through the words of Emma Lazarus, engraved on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor which says:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Some of the freedom we experience today comes from the ability to provide for the needs of others.
When people are in the midst of enduring tremendous suffering such as during and after Hurricane Sandy, human nature is such that often herculean efforts are made to continue to provide for and help those in this type of devastating situation. It has been shown many times over that many people manifest increased selfless behavior during times such as these which are perceived as excessively stressful and overwhelming. When the Purim story describes the celebration including the giving of gifts to friends and to the poor, it is describing the greater sense of altruism associated with these more difficult times. The commandment is a reminder not to rest in comfort, but to recognize that comfort comes with a responsibility. Therefore, the question that begs to be answered is this. If one who suffers and is traumatized can give when they don’t have much in emotional stock remaining to contribute, how much more should we, who are not in the midst of collective anguish, be able to provide to those who desperately need it?
As we celebrate Purim’s message of giving this year, my hope is for every person to take the time to recognize the tremendous responsibility all of us have to use the resources we possess individually in support of each other both in good and bad times. Chag Purim Sameach!
Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner is the Chaplain for The Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset, NJ.