Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum
Excerpt from ‘Power Lines’, Targum Press
Besides the mitzvot of reading the Megillah and rejoicing on Purim, we have two other mitzvot to perform: mishlo’ach manot, the sending of at least two pieces of food to a friend, and matanot l’evyonim, gifts of charity to at least two poor people. While tzedakah and acts of good will are encouraged throughout the year, the connection between these acts and the holiday of Purim is not clear.
There is a puzzling statement found in the Talmud regarding Purim: Where do we find a source for Haman in the Torah? The Talmud points to the verse in Genesis 3:11, where God confronted Adam and Eve after they had eaten from the tree. He asked them, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The first word in the verse, “Hamin,” has the same letters as the word “Haman.”
What is the connection between eating from the tree and the story of Haman?
The Talmud may be teaching us a lesson in human nature. The commentators see in Haman the epitome of arrogance and the mindless pursuit of honor. Haman had everything a person could possibly want: money, power, family, and prestige. The entire country bowed before him ? except for one Jew, Mordechai. Thousands upon thousands of people throughout 127 provinces paid homage to him, yet Haman could find no rest because Mordechai the Jew refused to bow down. He told his wife, “All of this is meaningless to me when I see Mordechai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate” (Esther 5:13).
That, Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz explains, is the essence of the pursuit of honor. It is all in the imagination. There can be no second best. If he doesn’t have everything, he feels he has nothing and can find no pleasure in all that he does have.
“Where do we find a source for such foolishness in the Torah?” the Talmud asks. The answer given is that this attitude is as old as the history of man. Adam and Eve could eat all the delicious fruits in the Garden of Eden. Only one tree was prohibited: the Tree of Knowledge. Why weren’t they satisfied? Did they need more? Yet they saw that “the tree was good for eating and that it was a delight for the eyes.” Nothing else mattered. They wanted the fruit from that tree, and no other. Such is man; consumed by desire, he cannot think rationally. He thinks only of himself and the present, the same foolishness shown by Haman, who ignored all else because Mordechai refused to bow before him.
The Purim story contains another example of this attitude. Achashveirosh could not sleep one night and asked his advisors to read to him from the chronicles. They read that Mordechai had never been rewarded for saving the king’s life.
At that moment, Haman happened to enter the king’s courtyard, to speak about hanging Mordechai on the gallows. Achashveirosh asked Haman how the king should act toward a man deserving of honor. Haman said to himself, “Who would the king want to honor more than me?” (Esther 6:6). It is amazing that it never even entered Haman’s mind that the king might want to honor someone other than himself! Again we see how a man can become so self-absorbed that he is totally oblivious to anything else in the world.
Now we might better understand the mitzvot on Purim of gifts to friends and poor people. The Sages wanted to show how self-centered a person could become, as seen in Haman’s behavior. This is especially important, when we consider the special mitzvah to celebrate Purim with joyous feasting and the drinking of wine. A person might be so absorbed in his enjoyment that he forgets everything and everyone else. For this reason, the Sages instituted the mitzvot of gifts to friends and poor people on Purim, to sensitize us to other people’s needs and feelings, even as we enjoy ourselves.
With this in mind, we can perhaps offer a new interpretation of another Talmudic statement: “A person is obligated to imbibe on Purim until he can no longer distinguish between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai’.” How could the Sages condone this type of behavior? Where do we ever find a mitzvah asking us to lose control of our minds?
But our interpretation of sending gifts to friends may show the purpose of the mitzvah of drinking to be the exact opposite of what it implies. The Sages instructed us to rejoice by drinking enough alcohol that we become oblivious to the realities of the world (“Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordechai”). Under such conditions it is difficult to deal with anyone else, let alone empathize with their needs. Yet the Sages wanted to show us that we must never allow our self-indulgence to interfere with our relationships with others. The mitzvot of gifts to friends and poor people prevent us from falling into the trap of the conceited Haman.