Pluralistic Perspectives Matanot L’Evyonim – Giving and Receiving on Purim
Adar is here! Purim, with all its joy and merriment, is on its way. As someone who was passed over when the gene that appreciates alcoholic beverages was dispensed, I find Purim, and the way it is widely celebrated, perplexing. Looking for the Divine in Purim can be difficult. We have a meal with no kiddush or candles, a scroll with no mention of G-d, where the heroine’s very name meanshidden or obscure, and we give treats to our friends who in turn give treats to us. How odd. But then…there is matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor). G-d was there all along.
Purim is the only holiday with tzedaka etched into its very being. Yes, the Torah tells us to take care of the Levite, the stranger, the widow and the orphan for the festivals. We have maos chitim (wheat money) before Passover. We shlug kaparos (swing a chicken) erev Yom Kippur so that we can give a chicken to the poor for their pre-fast meal, at the same time as we help ensure ourselves a good year. But these actions are far from the primary focus. Only on Purim is tzedaka on the short list – the list that really counts. If you google the rules for the various holidays, you will see laws about hametz and matza, or how to build a sukkah. Only Purim will specify matanot l’evyonim as one of its four integral mitzvot.
Why is G-d so readily seen in this particular mitzvah? What is it about tzedaka that connects one directly to the Divine? The answer to that question takes me back to one of my earliest memories. As a child, I gave tzedaka every day. At school, it was collected each morning during davening, six days a week. A penny was perfectly acceptable. On Friday I gave twice, once in the morning and once just before candle lighting.
When I graduated Bais Yaakov and left for college, I stopped giving tzedaka daily. Davening was no longer part of the school I attended. Pushkas had all but disappeared. I still gave, but in a more conventional way – before major festivals, on Purim and, later on in life, as the tax year drew to a close. It was not until my mother died that I took up the custom again. I began to give a dollar every day. When my son became sick, I added a second dollar. He is doing well now, thank G-d, but I still give $2 a day. Why is that important? Why not just write a check for $730 and be done with it? What is the difference?
The difference lies in Pirkei Avot 3:15:
All is foreseen, and freedom of choice is granted. The world is judged with goodness, but in accordance with the amount of a person’s positive deeds.
It’s all about abundance of actions. Although expressed very differently, both Rambam and the Alter Rebbe agree that each individual act of tzedaka has a profound impact. Something happens every morning when searching through a wallet looking for two single bills, something that goes far beyond writing an annual check. It brings to mind a question raised in tractate Yoma in the Talmud. Why was the manna given to the Israelites every day? Why not once a year? In Netivot Shalom the Slonimer Rebbe explains that it is about having faith that a channel for sustenance is created anew every day. It is upon us to look to Heaven, to reach for G-d daily. Therefore, the book of Shemot specifies the manna as the test to see if we will walk in the ways of G-d’s Torah or not. Will we have an ongoing intimate relationship with the Divine?
The act of giving tzedaka once every weekday morning, but twice on Friday mirrors precisely the way we gathered the manna in the desert. It is a way of giving thanks for the hesed (loving kindness) we receive today that is המקום לחסדיזכר(reminiscent of the Divine hesed) we received when we were redeemed from Egypt. It is a way of continuously exercising and thereby strengthening the part of us that accepts that we are all vulnerable, all connected, all part of the One. While neither tzedaka nor manna are collected on Shabbat itself, the kedusha (holiness) of both permeate the day.
A student of mine described a week-long retreat that was spent composing blessings for others. Afterwards, although he asked the recipients of his blessings if they had actually felt anything, he realized the impact had really been upon himself, an opening of the heart, a changed heart.
Matanot L’evyonim – a way of giving and receiving at the same time. Make it a daily practice. A freilichin un zissen Purim.