The memories I cherish of celebrating Purim as a child have nothing to do with dressing up like a superhero or eating homemade hamentashen. The moment I loved most was watching my father dole out dollar bills to anyone who asked for help.
Purim, which begins Wednesday night, celebrates the salvation of the Jews from the precipice of genocide, and is a holiday rife with revelry. It's the only Jewish holiday that requires celebrants drink copious amounts of alcohol to the point that they can't distinguish the story's villain from the hero. We conclude a fast day with a feast and give out gifts of wine, fruit and candy.
But amidst the drinking, eating, singing, donning elaborate costumes and a recounting of the traditional story, lies a lesson of giving that opens us up to the needs of people that we would never otherwise know.
The scroll of Esther teaches us that Purim serves as a unique day of charity, one that transcends the typical parameters of giving. Throughout the rest of the year, Jewish law dictates how, what, and to whom to give. We prioritize based on need, and we reserve the right to only give a tenth of our money to a charity of our choice.
However, on Purim, we live by different rules.
On this holiday, no matter the person, no matter the nationality, race, gender, or ethnicity, if someone extends her hand to ask for alms, we must give what we can.
Purim demands that we overcome our instinctual apathy and give without thought. Maimonides, the great Jewish legal and philosophical scholar, rules that we do not withhold in regards to the gifts to the poor on Purim. We are enjoined to remember that while we celebrate, millions of people in the world lack something so basic as water, food, and medicine. On this day we do not walk past a homeless person, or sneer at someone begging on the subway. Today we give and give and give 'til we empty our pockets.
I learned this lesson firsthand from my father.
If on every other day poor people knocked on our door in Brooklyn, this day, my father left it open, welcoming everyone inside. He sat down, listened to their story, providing both the solace of an attentive ear and concrete benefits of any money he could scrounge together.
From my dad I learned about the more intangible side of this giving decree. Many commentators explain that besides the commandment to provide money to all those who ask, we also must provide emotional charity.
If my dad couldn't give money, he gave his heart, his smile, and his love to everyone who came his way.
Built into this act of charity is the emotional statement that I care about you. I care about your welfare. It provides hope as much as it provides money or food.
Only a desperate person, one who has nearly given up, begs. That person puts his pride to the side and reluctantly puts out his hand for a sign of help.
On a day when all the Jews of the world faced a dire situation, the genocide of its people, they saw redemption at the very last moment. This is the moment of salvation we keep warm, generation after generation, and the one we also share with all of those who are suffering in this world.
From this holiday we learn that it is exactly in such moments of overwhelming joy that we must take a break from regaling, open our doors and invite in those who have to nowhere to go to believe that there is reason hope.