Purim is the Jewish calendar’s biggest party. The holiday, which falls in the joyous month of Adar, celebrates the story of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai’s heroic triumph over Haman in ancient Persia, and the resulting deliverance of the Jewish people. The holiday is honored by reading the megillah out loud (and making a ruckus whenever Haman’s name is read), wearing costumes, a good deal of partying on Purim night, and a delicious meal the following day. Perhaps the most famous – and telling – of Purim’s customs is the Talmudic requirement that someone drink until he can no longer distinguish between the words “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.”
But just below the festive surface are several deep and powerful connections to service. Queen Esther herself stands as an amazing role model – someone who willingly put the safety of her community ahead of everything else. The holiday also includes two obligations of direct service: mishloach manot (giving gifts of food to friends) and matanot l’evyonim (giving monetary gifts to the poor).
Both of these notions stem from the megillah (9:22) which reads, “…they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.” Over time, this phrase has been interpreted to require Jewish people to 1. share gifts of food with one another (each Jew over bar/bat mitzvah age is supposed to give at minimum two food items to at least one other person) and 2. donate to charity on Purim day.
The reasoning? To make sure that everyone’s needs are taken care of on such a festive holiday, and to strengthen community bonds. In other words, Purim has two built-in mechanisms that remind us to think about other people’s happiness and well-being – even on the calendar’s biggest party day. What might it mean to take this awareness about others into the rest of the year?