Purim: Peeling Back the Mask, With a Little Help From Our Friends

A dichotomy: Purim is a time in which we are acutely aware of the poor. The Mitzvah of Matanot La’evyonim reminds us perhaps more poignantly than at any other time of year that the poor need consideration, attention, and respect. As Mishloach Manot is intended to help us share with our friends in their Seudat Purim, Matanot La’evyonim is designed to give the poor sufficient funds to enjoy a respectable Purim meal.

Yet it is only one month later, at our Pesach Seder, that we actually take the next step of inviting the poor to join us at our table, with the famous call of “כל דכפין ייתי וייכול.” Against that backdrop, Matanot La’evyonim rings hollow: it directs us to find the poor where they are and give them what they need, but not to actually invite them to partake in the very Seudah that we will soon have in our home. What’s the point of Matanot La’evyonim? I’m making a Seudah anyway – why not just invite the poor into my house? In fact, the Halacha states that one should enjoy his Seudat Purim with friends and family, not the poor (see Mishnah Berurah, 695:9).

More questions: Why not call the Mitzvah “Tzedakah” or, mirroring the “Maot Chittim” that we give before Pesach, “Maot Purim?” Why the word “Evyon,” connoting an utterly destitute person, rather than Ani, a nominally poor person? It seems insulting – in order to perform this Mitzvah properly, I must declare to the recipient that he is entirely helpless and that his future is in my hands, and he must accept that designation as he accepts the gift. And speaking of which, why the word gift, Matanah, implying a one-sided transaction with no expectation of ever being reciprocated by the recipient? And finally, Tzedakah is always important, but what does this Mitzvah have so particularly to do with Purim that it was written into the Megillah and established as a central component of the day?

The answers all come down to perspective-taking. Purim is about winners and losers. There is no pretending, because pretending implies that one is insecure about the role Hashem has given him and his ability to shape the world within that role. On Purim the Evyon accepts his role – one which even allows the Ashir to do a Mitzvah that could not be properly performed if there were no Evyon around. On Purim we declare who we are for the world to know, and we recognize that it is not despite that position, but rather because of it, that we can shape the world’s destiny.

Matanot La’evyonim is a central Mitzvah of the day because it mirrors a pivotal conversation between Mordechai and Esther. As Esther hesitated before approaching Achashveirosh to request that he cancel Haman’s plan to destroy the Jews, Mordechai urged her to consider her role in the Jewish story:

אסתר פרק ד
(יג) ויאמר מרדכי להשיב אל אסתר, “אל תדמי בנפשך להמלט בית המלך מכל היהודים. (יד) כי אם החרש תחרישי בעת הזאת, רוח והצלה יעמוד ליהודים ממקום אחר, ואת ובית אביך תאבדו; ומי יודע אם לעת כזאת הגעת למלכות!”

In theory, this is one of the most anti-climactic statements in all of Tanach. From the first Pasuk and a half, it appears that Mordechai is going to tell Esther that if she does not save the Jews, no one will and it will be curtains for the Jewish People. Yet he finishes his thoughts in just the opposite way than we would expect – that if Esther doesn’t save the Jews, someone else will! This is Esther’s role, she the Ashir and the Jews the Evyonim; but by failing to recognize or capitalize on one’s opportunity to live meaningfully, one harms only himself and gives another Ashir the chance to steal the board.

In its encouragement of self-knowledge, Purim acts as an ironic but important precursor to Pesach, when we all pretend to be kings (which we are not) and slaves (which we also are not) and invite the poor to envision himself living in a state of relative comfort (which he does not). Yet we are entitled to pretend because we do so within the context of having already defined and accepted our role one month earlier, on Purim. When we say that we are kings, we mean that as an aspiration beyond what we have already accepted ourselves to be. When we say that we understand slavery, we mean that we can augment the position of life within which we find ourselves with a feeling of empathy for Avadim and an understanding of our own Avdut. We can aspire to understand others who do not have what we have. When we invite the Evyon to join us at our Seder, it is as a character in the Pesach story who understands who he is and who has accepted his role, but who now also aspires for more. But in order to aspire for more, one must first understand who he is – and this is the earlier job of Purim.

The origin of costumes on Purim is shrouded in mystery, but they serve as an ironic supplement to the self-discovery of the day. As a great poet once sang, “We all have a face that we hide away forever, and we take it out and show ourselves when everyone has gone.” Self-knowledge is one of the most difficult tasks we undertake, and we do it with fear of what we might find. We all protect ourselves against the discovery of who we really are with all types of masks – cynicism, denial, bravado, attachment to others whom we respect more than we do ourselves. These are, one might say, “the faces of the stranger, but we love to try them on.” At the end of the day, though, our task on Purim is not truly to wear masks but ultimately to free ourselves of them and see and appreciate who we truly are – warts and all – before the growth of Pesach and Sefirah can begin.

Our task on Purim is to be the Evyon or the Ashir that Hashem wanted us to be. Like two runners side by side on the starting block but worlds apart in their abilities, like two teams on Opening Day of which only one has any reasonable shot at making the Playoffs, we stand before Hashem as equals who are not identical and who would make no claim to be of equal opportunity or caliber. We mask ourselves in the morning because we know the light of self-discovery will be blinding, but we undertake the task anyway as we use wine to shed our outer selves later in the day. And we do it all because it is only based on that self-recognition that we can begin to grow and develop on Pesach and beyond.

Pleasant Journeys, one and all.

(The above essay is based loosely on a Shiur I gave a few years ago, the Sources for which can be found here.)

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