A Message for Purim

In the coming days, we will celebrate Purim, a holiday built on the theme of v’nahapoch hu, how everything can instantly be turned upside down. In the original Purim story, the day dedicated to the destruction of the Jews became the day of their triumph, while the gallows prepared for the Jewish leader Mordechai were used instead to hang their arch enemy, Haman. Upside down, indeed.

While the focus of the day is a recognition of how G-d runs the world, there is also a dimension of the Purim story that underscores the critical value of our own assumption of communal responsibility.

The turning point of the biblical Purim story was when Queen Esther, safely ensconced in the king’s palace, is activated by Mordechai to step forward and risk her life to save her people:

“Do not imagine that you alone from amongst all the Jews will be able to find safety by taking refuge in the king’s palace. For if you will be silent at this time, salvation will surely arise for the Jews from other quarters, while you and your family will be lost.”

Mordechai’s charge — which Esther ultimately acted upon — was to recognize that when our focus is limited to assuring our own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, that life is empty. We will find meaning, purpose, and eternity in our lives only to the extent that we benefit others.

Our sages similarly noted the contrast between Noach, who built an ark that saved him and his family while the world around them was destroyed, and Moshe, who refused to save himself alone and said to G-d that he would only accept to be spared if G-d would spare the entirety of the Jewish people along with him.

This perspective is not a given in the world around us but remains a staple of our religious worldview which teaches us that there are no rights without responsibilities. Indeed, in the early 19th century, Rav Chaim of Volozhin rephrased Mordechai’s charge to Esther into a sort of mantra which he shared with his children and students: “For this is what man is all about; he was not created for his own self but rather to help others in any way he can.”

It is for this reason that the Purim holiday is celebrated by far more than a feast for family and friends. Purim is a day with a special emphasis on gifts to the needy, as well as on sending care packages of food to those who will not be joining us for the actual feast. This inclusive celebration fits Mordechai’s charge, as celebrating by ourselves — much like saving only ourselves — is empty of true meaning.

Purim provides us the opportunity to focus on our obligation to bring warmth, light, and joy to those who are most vulnerable and isolated. It is an ideal time for us to reach out, check in on, and reconnect to those who are alone. Doing so will also help us recognize that beyond the obligation to share our blessings with others, we will experience no greater joy than when we gladden the hearts of others.

Yes, our world, at times, feels upside down, and we pray for the miracle of Purim to visit us once again and turn things back around. But we can expect and anticipate that what will herald that turnaround will be our own national “Esther moment”, when our care and concern turn outward, beyond ourselves, leading us to act with our most vulnerable in mind.