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March 2023 KoREH News

The Greatest Purim Mitzvah Is Empathy
As you’re reading this, Purim is nearly here. For many of us, the holiday of Purim holds a special place in our Jewish lives and in our memories. It is a holiday that takes a frightening premise (the near genocide of the Jews of Shushan) and reinvents it as a festival of merriment, revelry, and communal celebration. It’s one of the things I like best about this holiday, and an important piece of being human, namely, our ability to look at an experience that might have turned out awfully and celebrate the fact that we are ok.
But a deeper look at the mitzvot and customs of Purim reveals another purpose to this holiday. Purim is one of the only holidays on which we are required to listen to a piece of text with full and complete attention. Not only that, but most authorities consider the mitzvah of hearing the Megillah (Book of Esther) read is not fulfilled unless one hears/reads it in full, morning and evening. By requiring us to listen attentively to this story, the Sages of Jewish tradition are urging us not to shy away from the most difficult pieces of this story, both the potential and actual tragedies it depicts. This is a story not only of triumph over evil intentions, but about living honestly, about proudly embracing our identities and standing up to those who would do us harm because of who we are both as individuals and as a community.
We are also asked to give mishloach manot (gifts of food to people in the community) and matanot l’evyonim (gifts of money to those in need). Just as we come together to enjoy our holiday and celebrate surviving an awful piece of our collective past, we must not only recognize that others around us need our help, but that we must do something about it, that we are obligated to stop what we are doing to give that help. And while this is a prescribed mitzvah on Purim, I would go as far as to say that the Jewish tradition is trying to get us to realize that people need our help everyday, and that it is still our responsibility to give help wherever we can.
And finally, we are required to eat a special meal, and are customarily encouraged to dress in costume. It may be easy to see dressing up as a fun and silly way to celebrate, it can actually be a profound act of transformation. While we can never actually know what it is like to be someone else, the idea of donning the clothing of another person or character gives us a tool to cultivate one of the greatest superpowers known to humankind: empathy.
Haman sought to kill the Jews of Shushan because he took offense to one person and sought to punish people he saw as less worthy than himself. He hates Mordechai for the simple crime of being a person who wanted respect and freedom, just as Haman did. If he had been able to see himself in Mordechai, put himself in his shoes for just a moment or two, he would realize that Mordechai’s unwillingness to bow down to Haman was not a show of disrespect to him, but rather a display of Mordechai’s respect for himself, his heritage, and his relationship with the Holy Blessed One.
Sadly, we still encounter those who seek to demonize entire groups for the sin of being different than they are. We see leaders and lawmakers trying to legislate people out of our history books, our curricula, our sports teams, our clubs, our shared discourse, and our communities as a whole. If only they were able to experience Purim like our tradition suggests, spending time reading and understanding the tragedies that occur when we hate one another and use our power to destroy, maybe they would think twice before condemning the differences they see in others. If only they took the time to reach out to see the humanity in a stranger, to help them, feed them, see them face-to-face, and try to, for just a moment, step into their shoes, they might be able to stop seeing community and belonging as a zero sum game, and instead reach out to expand the idea of who is human to include all people with compassion.
This Purim, try on someone else’s shoes. You will never be them, never know what it is really like to live their lives and feel their experiences, but perhaps when the holiday is over, you might be better equipped to do the work of reshaping our world into one where we won’t need to constantly re-learn the essential lessons of how to treat one another as sacred human beings.
Mon, March 4 2024 24 Adar I 5784