Mishloach Manot: A Purim Story Hiding In Plain Sight
The Genesis Of The Purim Mitzvot: Mishloach Manot & Matanot La’Evyonim
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Besides for reading the book of Esther, Purim is primarily celebrated through two mitzvot: Mishloach Manot and Matanot la'evyonim. Mishloach Manot is the practice of giving gifts to friends and family and Matanot la'evyonim is the act of giving gifts to the poor. But what makes Mishloach Manot and Matanot la'evyonim so unique to Purim? Sure these are great mitzvot to do – but why do them on Purim, specifically?
Through a careful examination of the Purim story, Rabbi Fohrman explores the subtle whispers and foreshadows of these two mitzvot in the text. What emerges is a unique story of the discrete dialogue shared between Queen Esther and Mordechai during this period in the turbulent, Persian Empire. Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores this fascinating backstory – and never give Mishloach Manot the same way again.
Besides for the public reading of the book of Esther, Purim is celebrated primarily through two mitzvot of the day: mishloach manot and matanot la'evyonim.
Purim Mitzvot: Mishloach Manot and Matanot La'evyonim
Mishloach manot is the customary practice to give gifts, literally manot, gifts of food, to friends and family. Matanot la'evyonim, a mitzvah to give gifts to the poor. When you think about these mitzvoth of the day, they seem kind of generic; they don't seem very particular to Purim.
You know, if you look at other holidays, think about Passover – you eat matzah, this flatbread on Passover. There's something about eating matzah that gives you a window into the soul of what Passover is about. Sukkot, you sit in this little hut all day. Hanukkah, you light the menorah.
But what is there about mishloach manot and matanot la'evyonim that's anything more than a generic celebratory thing to do? Do these mitzvoth somehow give us a window into the soul of Purim?
Uncovering the Story Behind the Purim Mitzvot
If you look carefully at the story of Purim, you're actually going to find little whispers in that story, foreshadows of these two mitzvoth, mishloach manot and matanot la'evyonim. And if you can find those references and connect the dots, a hidden story will emerge – a story within a story that makes the megillah come alive in a whole new way.
If we can discern that story, our practice of mishloach manot and matanot la'evyonim will come alive in a whole new way too. Come with me back into the megillah and let's see what we can find.
Mordechai establishes these days of Purim as "y'mei mishteh v'simchah," as days of merrymaking and feasting, "u'mishlo'ach manot ish l'rei'eihu," and the sending of portions of food one man to his fellow, "u'matanot la'evyonim," and gifts to the poor. Let's now look earlier in the megillah to see if we can find any antecedents to these two ideas, mishloach manot and matanot la'evyonim.
Let's start with the language of mishloach manot in the verse I just read to you. Mishloach manot sort of had three pieces to it. Manot, portions of food, ish, one man or one person, l'rei'eihu, his friend. We're going to go back in the megillah to look for these words and the constellation that emerges around them.
Connections to Mishloach Manot in the Bible
Let's start with the last of those words. The word rei'ah, friend, colleague, does it ever appear earlier in the megillah? Now rei'ah is actually an unusual word in the later books of the Bible, but this word actually does appear once in the actual story of Purim.
It appears all the way back in Chapter 1. Vashti, Queen of Persia, wife of Achashveirosh has defied the king and Memuchan, an advisor to the king suggested she be deposed, "u'malchutah yitein hamelech," and let the king give her crown, her queenship, "l'r'utah hatovah mimenah," to her friend, or to her colleague, that is greater than she.
Now if you actually think about it, there's something a little bit funny about that phrase because if you really consider what Memuchan is saying here, he doesn't really mean that we're going to give her queenship to Vashti's friend. But, you know, that's what he says. So let's just take it. That is the first and only other expression of rei'ah earlier in the megillah.
Now let's just talk a little bit about the identity of this mysterious rei'ah. At the time the word is used in the megillah Chapter 1, no one knows who this is. This is whoever is going to be chosen queen.
Now you and I who've already read the megillah, know who this does turn out to be. And it turns out to be Esther. So the mysterious hidden identity of the first rei'ah in the megillah is Esther.
Let's go to our next word, manot. That word manot, it does appear in the story and guess what? Who gets the manot, these portions of food? It's actually Esther – which is kind of amazing. The rei'ah is the one who gets the manot earlier in the story.
Let me show you right here in the verse. Esther is taken into the palace, into the king's harem and there Heigai, the person who's in charge of watching over all the maidens, he sort of takes a fancy to her.
The plan for the beauty contest is all these girls are supposed to be given tamrukim, these perfumes; but he gives her something else too. "Vayivahel et tamrukehah," he hurries to her and gives her all of these perfumes, "v'et manotehah latet lah," and he also gives her manot, which, like, kind of, wasn't on the list. It wasn't what was supposed to be given. There's manot given to Esther.
What about the last word in our little constellation here? Does the word "man" appear boldly and centrally back in the megillah? As it happens, it does. This one single word becomes the word that introduces the hero of the megillah, a guy by the name of Mordechai.
"Ish Yehudi hayah b'Shushan habirah" there was a man from Judah in Shushan the capital, "u'shmo" and his name, "Mordechai ben Ya'ir ben Shim'i ben Kish" he was the son of Ya'ir, Shimi and Kish "ish Y'mini" a man from the tribe of Benjamin. There it is, man, man over and over again. It's the word for Mordechai.
Was Mordechai the original sender of mishloach manot? Was there a time when Esther, the rei'ah received manot from Heigai that were actually being sent to her, originating with an ish. "Mishloach manot ish l'rei'eihu." Was Mordechai the phantom sender of those manot to Esther when she was in the king's harem?,
If you actually look carefully at the verse, it seems like that might be so. You see this had been planned out back in Verse 3. "Vayik'bitzu et kol na'arah" all of these maidens are to be gathered together. Where? Element 2, "el Shushan Habirah" to Shushan. Element 3, "el yad Heigai" they should be given under Heigai's hand. Element Number 4 "v'naton tamrukeihen" and they were to be given their perfumes.
Then it all unfolds element by element a couple of verses later. "U'b'hikabetz na'arot rabot" all the maidens were gathered – Element Number 2 "el Shushan Habirah" to Shushan. Where were they given under? "El yad Heigai" to Heigai's hand and then "vayivahel et tamrukehah" he gives to her these perfumes. But then an unplanned element "v'et manotehah" he adds something, almost as if they were bundled together with the tamrukim.
Now look at that verb for giving the tamrukim. It actually has changed from the plan. In the plan "v'naton tamrukeihen" he's just going to give her, Heigai, these perfumes. But that verb naton which is so pareve and so generic gets changed to "vayivahel et tamrukehah." Vayivahel in Hebrew has the connotation of furtiveness, to be rushed, almost as if there's something contraband here. He rushes to her her tamrukim, her perfumes and there's something bundled that wasn't planned within it; these "manot lateit lah." Someone slipped them to her.
Who? Presumably, the megillah at the very end tells us who. They were "mishloach manot ish l'rei'eihu." They were given to her by an ish, Mordechai sent them through Heigai to Esther.
It seems like we found an antecedent to "mishloach manot ish l'rei'eihu" in the megillah story. Can we find a similar antecedent for matanot la'evyonim, for these gifts to the poor?
Tracing the Biblical Origins of Matanot La'evyonim
At face value, the answer is no because the word evyon or evyonim, the Hebrew word for a destitute person who just absolutely is completely desperate, doesn't appear anywhere in the story of the megillah itself. So it seems like we've hit a dead end here. But if you look a bit more carefully, maybe it's not such a dead end after all.
If the original mishloach manot were these surreptitious portions of food that were somehow sent by Mordechai to Esther when she was in the harem of the king, might matanot la'evyonim be a similar kind of gift? Might it be something that was maybe sent by Esther back to Mordechai? Esther does send something to Mordechai. You find it a little bit later in the megillah story. She sends clothes to him.
Haman decides that Mordechai has defied him and to take revenge is going to completely wipe out, exterminate every man, woman and child in the Jewish people. It's a terrible time. Mordechai finds out about the decree "Vayikra Mordechai et b'gadav" he tears his clothes in a sign of morning "vayilbash sak va'eifer" and he puts on sackcloth and ashes. "Vayiz'ak z'akah gedolah u'marah." He goes out in the streets and he lets out a great and bitter cry. Then, he goes all the way up to the palace gates. And, Esther's handmaidens see him there and they tell Esther about it.
Esther becomes visibly shaken "vatitchalchal hamalkah me'od" she becomes very worried and trembling "vatishlach b'gadim l'halbish et Mordechai" so she sends these clothes, freshly pressed garments from the palace to replace the torn clothes that Mordechai is wearing. She sends him these gifts. Could these be a matanot la'evyonim earlier in the megillah?
Now you think, well, maybe they could be, but there's a problem with this. It doesn't really sort of make sense because why is Esther sending these clothes? As I mentioned to you before, the word evyon never appears in the story and Mordechai is not an evyon. Mordechai is in mourning. So it's not like Esther's sending matanot la'evyonim, Esther's sending clothes to somebody in mourning so this theory doesn't seem to make much sense.
Let me try to illustrate the silliness almost of what Esther does. Imagine yourself going to the house of a mourner. You walk in and it's shivah and there's this guy in his torn clothes and he's crying and he's telling you about his father and it was so devastating this terrible loss. Imagine you look at those torn clothes and you say ah, by the way, I noticed that your clothes are a little ripped and I actually have some clothes in the car. Could I give you some clothes to replace your clothes? There's a reason why he has torn clothes. You wouldn't replace the torn clothes of a mourner. Why is Esther sending these clothes to Mordechai? It just makes no sense whatsoever.
The only way it makes sense is kind of replay it and ask yourself what are you thinking if you're Esther and your handmaidens come to you and they tell you about this guy you once knew, Mordechai, and he's out in the streets and he's wearing torn clothes. What do you know and what don't you know?
Here's what you know. Mordechai's wearing torn clothes. Here's what you don't know. You don't know what Mordechai knows. Go back to Verse 1. "U'Mordechai yada et kol asher na'asah" and Mordechai knows about everything that happened. He knows about the decree. Everyone in the Jewish quarter of Shushan knows about the decree and they're all wearing their clothes of mourning. But who doesn't know? Look at the verse right before that. "Hadat nitnah b'Shushan habirah" the terrible decree was issued in Shushan the capital. But then "hamelech v'Haman yashvu lish'tot" in the palace we have this scene in which the king and Haman they sit down to eat and drink at a banquet. "V'ha'ir Shushan" but the Jewish quarter of Shushan "navochah" was in astonishing mourning.
There's this disconnect between the court of the king, the palace life and the life in the Jewish quarter of Shushan. They just have nothing to do with each other. It's just Haman and the king, yeah, they're just feasting away at the palace barbeque while everyone else is in tears.
You're Esther. You're in the palace. You're not privy to everything the king does before lunch. The king with the wave of a hand legislates genocide. You don't even know. All you know is that your handmaidens come to you and say there's this guy you once knew. Mordechai. He's out there in the streets and he looks like he came upon hard times. He's got torn clothes. I mean he really looks like a wreck. You're so worried. Is this the Mordechai I once knew?
Your mind races, and what conclusion do you come to? You don't see the mourning that's happening throughout Shushan. You see one person who's come to the palace gates in sackcloth and ashes and torn clothes. You think something happened to Mordechai. He's destitute. Let me at least give the man clothes.
They were fake matanot la'evyonim. They were matanot to someone Esther thought was an evyon who really wasn't.
Okay, folks. So let's just pull back the zoom lens here. Let's kind of grant for a second that we buy everything I've just said. You know, I could hear the skeptic in you kind of coming back at me with the following. All right, Fohrman, let's say you're right. So you found this antecedent to matanot la'evyonim and you found this antecedent to mishloach manot ish l'rei'eihu, we actually see these things in the megillah story itself, but who cares?
I mean the events that you're arguing are the antecedents to these mitzvoth are trivial and in one case they're actually wrong. I mean who cares about this little thing that Mordechai once sent to Esther, this portion of food or something when she was in the king's harem. Then these clothes that Esther sends because she misunderstands what Mordechai is going to so we memorialize this great misunderstanding? I mean, this is ridiculous. Why should we have these great memorializations of these incredibly trivial and even wrong, misunderstood actions by the protagonists of the megillah? It just doesn't make any sense.
So folks, here's what I want to suggest to you. These two footnotes that we've identified, the giving of mishloach manot earlier in the story and the giving of matanot la'evyonim earlier in the story, these are actually windows into a whole new understanding of the megillah's story as a whole. You see that story from the outside looks like a story of kind of Machiavelli and palace intrigue as Esther and Mordechai somehow have to wheel and deal their way around this genocidal decree of Haman. It seems like a story of hashgachah, of divine provenance coming in at the last minute to save the day. But there's also a hidden story, I think, that underlies all of that. A story that involves just two people and the relationship between them. Mordechai and Esther.
Somehow, I want to suggest, these two footnotes are giving you an insight into the development of that story upon which everything else rests. To see that story, I want to read with you the verses that describe the giving of the manot from Mordechai to Esther and the giving of the clothes from Esther to Mordechai.
The Purim Story Behind Mishloach Manot and Matanot La'evyonim
The story I want to tell you here really plays out almost in three acts. Here's Act 1. Our story begins with Mordechai, really with the text's introduction to Mordechai. "Ish Yehudi" we hear about him. He's a man from Judah "ish Yemini" we hear about him. He's a man from Benjamin. But then we hear something else about him. "Va'y'hi omein et Hadassah" he was like a nurse for Hadassah. What happened? The intervening verse tells you. "Asher haglah miYerushalayim" Esther and Mordechai, they were victims of exile. They were displaced. They were refugees and because of that Esther was in need of care. The man couldn't afford to be just a man anymore. He had to be a replacement for a mother and a father, because Esther had lost both. "Ki ein lah av va'eim" Esther's father and mother they were killed somehow in the terrible war and persecution that surrounded the exile of Nebuchadnezzar.
"V'hana'arah y'fat to'ar v'tovat mar'eh" she was very, very beautiful this girl. Why is the text telling us about how beautiful she is? That was totally irrelevant.
The next verse tells you the relevance. The next verse tells you about the beauty contest. "Vatilakach Esther el beit hamelech" and Esther was taken into the harem of the king. That word vatilakach, it's just the passive form of the word used to describe Mordechai adopting her as his very own daughter. Passive, Esther, taken in against her will, as if she was just an object, an object prized for her beauty, a little statuette in the harem of the king to stay there forever and to grow old. Because when you think about that beauty contest, it wasn't really the exciting thing that you and I think of when we dress up as Esther nowadays and we wear our cellophane hats and our tinsel scepters and you think a beauty contest, wow, that's the most exciting thing in the world. Could you pick me? Could you pick me? And you wave your arms and you stand on your tiptoes. That's not what it was like.
If you get chosen for the beauty contest, you never come home. A girl that enters the harem never leaves. For almost all of these young women the moment that you were chosen is the worst moment of your life. After that, you're all alone. You past is gone. And that brings us to the manot.
If you think about what it would've been like to have been Mordechai at that moment, to have lost Esther, it's like you're never going to see each other again. And if you're Mordechai, you know, at some point, how long can you mourn for this? A day, a week, a month and then your friends come and they talk to you and they say look, there was nothing you could've done, Mordechai. Don't feel so guilty. Esther's gone forever. It's time to move on. You think if I'm never going to see her again, I just got to emotionally let go. But that's not what he does.
He tries to find a way to stay connected. He's out there "mit'haleich lifnei chatzar beit hanashim" he's walking out there and there's almost like this fence, this barbed wire between the harem and the outside world. And he suddenly, somehow finds a way to slip her something. This little package and inside this little package, there are these manot, these little chocolate chip cookies, and you ask yourself why did he send them?
There is no reason he sent them. It wasn't to get anything or to do anything. It was just this little care package that says I love you. I'm caring for you. You still matter to me.
And its not just that – there's more to these manot. Look at the next verse – "lo higidah Esther et amah v'et moladitah" Esther didn't tell anyone about her Jewishness, "ki Mordechai tzivah alehah asher lo tagid" because Mordechai had commanded her not to tell. When did he command her that?
Esther's taken forcibly from Mordechai. In the middle of the night, the king's henchman shows up. There is no goodbye. There's just a girl who's gone, who was there one moment and isn't there another moment. So when did Mordechai command her this? There's only one option. When he slipped her the manot, the little chocolate chip cookies. Maybe there was a note inside. The note said what we hear now. You don't have to tell everybody that you're Jewish. What did that note mean? Why did Mordechai say it?
Here again, you have to be careful not to read with the end in mind. You see, you know that Esther becomes queen because that's the end of the story. But right now, what are the chances Esther becomes queen? It's not even on anyone's mind. Esther doesn't think she's becoming queen. Mordechai doesn't think she's becoming queen. It's a one in a million shot. So it's not like, don't tell anyone you're Jewish because we need an ace in the hole for when you become queen, and who knows maybe there will be persecution. Maybe there will be anti-Semitism. It's always good to have a Jew in the palace.
No, that wasn't the reason. Haman's decree hadn't been promulgated yet. There's no reason to believe that Esther's going to be anything more than a statue in the harem for the rest of her life. So why did Mordechai say it? It wasn't for any utilitarian purpose. It wasn't for any political calculation. It was for her; a little act of love just like those chocolate chip cookies. I am always going to love you forever, no matter who you are, no matter what you become. You're always the girl that I adopted and I took care of. I mean think about it. What are the chances that Esther's able to hold onto her Jewishness for months, for years, for decades as a single lone Jewess in the palace, in the harem of the king?
It can't really happen and Mordechai's, like, I understand.You don't have to tell everybody that you're a Jew and think that's what Mordechai would've demanded of me. You don't have to live your life feeling guilt for having let me down. I will accept you no matter what the future brings for you.
All right. So much for Act 1. Let's move on to Act 2.
Esther is actually chosen queen. And then in the palace, as queen, "Ein Esther magedet moladitah v'et amah" Esther didn't tell anybody about her Jewishness. The question is why does the text need to repeat that?
The answer is this repetition means everything. It changes everything because the fact that Esther was chosen queen was one in a million. It was something that Mordechai never planned for. Something that Esther never planned for and if you think about Mordechai's command, that little note wrapped inside the chocolate chip cookies – Esther, you don't have to tell anybody you're Jewish – it made sense in that context. Does it make as much sense in the new context? Here you are, you're actually chosen as queen. You have this relationship with Achashveirosh. Does it make sense to never tell him who you are? I mean how long can you keep this ruse up? It's, like, where are you from? And it's, like, oh, gee, I can't tell him. I can't tell him. Mordechai said I wasn't supposed to – Mordechai never said you weren't supposed to tell him. That was a whole different thing back in the harem. I mean Esther's playing with fire. She's going to get her head chopped off eventually. You're going to deceive him? And he eventually finds out and then what? It's a very scary situation.
If you put yourself in Esther's shoes, separated from everything that you really know and love. It's your way of staying connected to Mordechai. And so you stay loyal to that note even though the note kind of had an expiration date on it. It wasn't meant for this situation. It's a dangerous path Esther is embarking upon and the danger comes to a head in Act 3.
Haman issues his genocidal decree and we hear about the reaction to that decree both in the palace and in the street. "Hamelech v'Haman yashvu lishtot" the verse says. The king and Haman, they sat down to drink in a wine feast after the decree was promulgated. "V'ha'ir Shushan navochah" but the Jewish quarter of Shushan was in despair.
This disconnect between the palace and the street sets up the very next verse. "U'Mordechai yada et kol asher na'asah" and Mordechai knew all that had happened "vayikra Mordechai et b'gadav" and therefore he tore his clothes "vayilbash sak va'eifer" and he put on sackcloth and ashes "vayeitzei b'toch ha'ir vayiz'ak z'akah g'dolah u'marah" he went out in the streets and he let out a great and terrible cry. But the beginning of that verse seems to tell us something kind of unnecessary. Everyone knows what's going on. So why does it say "U'Mordechai yada" and Mordechai knew what had happened? That's obvious.
Unless it's telling us, by contrast, Mordechai knew, but someone didn't know. Someone important. Does Esther even know about this?
Meanwhile what does Mordechai do? "Vayavo ad lifnei sha'ar hamelech" he walks up until the gates of the palace "ki ein lavo el sha'ar hamelech bilvush sak" because you can't actually go in the gates dressed this way. And that's where he stays. You have to ask yourself why does he do that?
Well, read the next verse. "B'chol medinah um'dinah makom asher dvar hamelech v'et dato magi'a" and in all the provinces of the kingdom, everywhere that Jews lived "eivel gadol laYehudim" they were experiencing what Mordechai was experiencing; a great sense of mourning. "V'tzom ub'chi sak va'eifer u'tza larabim" they're fasting and crying – everyone was wearing sackcloth and ashes. Mordechai wasn't any different. The difference is that Mordechai was the only one standing right outside the iron gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Mordechai was the only one that the handmaidens of Esther could see. He can't get to her directly, but Esther has to find out what's going on with her countrymen. This is the only way he can communicate by showing up there disheveled, with torn clothes and hoping someone notices, hoping someone takes note of him and tells the queen about it.
And see him, they do.
"Vatavonah na'arot Esther" so the handmaidens of Esther, they do take notice "vayagidu lah" and they tell her. There's this guy, Mordechai, remember that guy you once knew? He looks like a mess. He's out there in the palace gates, torn clothes, ashes everything. Now put yourself in Esther's shoes. Again, what does Esther think? Vatitchalchal, she trembles. She's emotionally taken with this situation. Here was Mordechai. That was the man, the one who sent me those chocolate chip cookies, the one who nursed me back to health, who took care of me. If you're Esther, what are you thinking? Maybe he fell on hard times, maybe he's an evyon, maybe he's destitute. I'll send him clothes. "Vatishlach b'gadim l'halbish et Mordechai" and so she sent him clothes. It's the least I can do.
Now put yourself in Mordechai's shoes. When you get that care package from the queen, those nice new clothes, what do you do? Do you put them on or do you reject them? There are terrible risks either way. If you put on the clothes, she leaves thinking that she's done a nice little mitzvah of taking care of the poor, and everything's going to be fine with Mordechai from now on, when that's not true. Your only chance to communicate with her is gone. Your only choice is not to put them on.
"V'lo kibel" the text says. He rejects the clothes and the die has cast. How will Esther take it?
Understanding Esther's Gift to Mordechai: The Hidden Story of Purim's Mizvot
Here, right now, is the first miracle of Purim. "Vatikra Esther l'Hatach" Esther summons a messenger, Hatach. "Vatitzaveihu al Mordechai" and she commands him concerning Mordechai "lada'at mah zeh v'al mah zeh" she instructs him to find out what is going on with this guy. Esther seeks to learn more. Put yourself in Esther's shoes at that moment. Here you are. You sent clothes to this guy. You hadn't seen him in a long time and he just rejects them. Do you need this? Does your reputation need this? Does the palace need this?
It's, like, your immediate, instinctive response it's like well that's fine. I sent him clothes. I did my thing. All right. If Mordechai has fallen on hard times, let him dig himself out of this mess. But she doesn't do that. She intuits that there must be something going on that she doesn't know about. Hatach, please go figure out what's going on. That, just that insistence on finding out more, is itself a little subtle act of faith; faith that she is placing in Mordechai.
If you think about that little act of faith, isn't it fascinating? The way Mordechai was described was as a nurse for her, but the word for nurse, omein, it actually means something else too, Aleph-Mem-Nun. It means to be faithful, steadfast. That's what he was. He was always there for her, always there for her. The one thing that she knows about him is that he was faithful to her. The least that she can do is return the favor to have faith in him. Something's not adding up. I have to figure out what it is. So she sends Hatach to figure out what's going on.
Now put yourself back in Mordechai's shoes. You have a dilemma here, don't you? Here comes Hatach ambling down the palace driveway and he's about to meet you. He puts his hands on his hips and says all right, Mordechai, what's the deal? What's going on? What do you tell him? How much do you tell him? For all you know, this is your only chance to communicate directly to Esther. You can pass a note to her, a message to her, but maybe only one message. What do you say?
"Vayaged lo Mordechai et kol asher karahu" Mordechai tells her everything that befell him. A complete information dump. "Et parashat hakesef" he tells her about the money that was promised. Follow the money, that's always part of the scandal. "Asher amar Haman lishkol el ginzei hamelech" that Haman had promised the king would come into the king's treasury from all of the murdered Jews. "V'et pat'shegen ktav hadat" he even showed her a copy of the very decree "asher nitan b'Shushan l'hashmidam" that was promulgated in Shushan to utterly destroy all of the Jews. He gave it to Hatach "l'har'ot et Esther u'l'hagid lah" to show to Esther and to tell her about it "u'l'tzavot alehah" and to command her "lavo el hamelech l'hit'chanein lo" to go to the king to beg him, to beseech him "u'l'vakeish milfanav al amah" and to ask him for the lives of her countrymen.
If you go back to that verse and you analyze it carefully, there are two things here that Mordechai does that are kind of curious. What does he do with that decree? He gives a copy to Hatach "l'har'ot et Esther" Verb Number 1, to show to Esther. Verb Number 2 "u'l'hagid lah" and to tell her about it. But now look at Verb Number 3, "u'l'tzavot alehah lavo el hamelech" and to command her about it to go to the king and to beg him for the lives of her people. Mordechai is issuing a command to Esther.
Mordechai is like an authority figure. He took over the position of father and mother for her I suppose you could issue a command. But remember, she's also the queen now. The queen is not used to being commanded. There is at least another way that Mordechai could've done this because Mordechai wasn't just the father figure, perhaps, that might issue stern decrees, but also a nurse, a mother figure. There's love here. He could've appealed to that, but he doesn't. He appeals to the decree. It's a dangerous path.
There's something else dangerous about what Mordechai is doing here too. He seems almost to be skipping a step because what does Esther have to do before she begs the king for her countrymen? Remember. Remember that little note. Remember how she's hiding her identity. She has to reveal her identity. Why didn't he say, you know, Esther the time has come to finally reveal who you are to the king and then to ask him for the lives of your countrymen.
It's because Mordechai has a different perspective on that little note that Esther had. Mordechai doesn't know how Esther took that note. Never in a millions years does Mordechai expect to think that once she married the king she didn't tell him about who she was. Of course she would've told him. That's not what I meant. But there's a disconnect here, right? Because that's not how Esther took it. Esther was holding onto that note. Always looking at that note. She always kept by that. Esther's in a much bigger hole than Mordechai thinks she is.
How's Esther going to manage this?
Let's listen in on Esther's response to Mordechai. Esther begins in an ominous way. Vatitzaveihu el Mordechai." Yes, that's the words. She issues a command to him. " You see, it's very subtle. The first time around when Esther had sent Hatach back before "vatitzaveihu al Mordechai" she had commanded Hatach about Mordechai to go find out what was going on. Now this has changed. "Vatitzaveihu el Mordechai" she tells Hatach to issue a decree to Mordechai. It's almost as if she's saying Mordechai, what's going on? You're commanding me to go to the king? I'll issue a command right back to you.
Esther says you know something that I don't know. Well guess what? I know something that you don't know. You want to talk commands? "Kol avdei hamelech v'am m'dinot hamelech yodim" everybody knows "asher kol ish v'ishah asher yavo el hamelech el hechatzar hapnimit asher lo yikarei achat dato l'hamit" that any man or woman who comes before the king into his inner sanctum who hasn't been called that they're taking their life into their hands, by law they die. "L'vad mei'asher yoshit lo hamelech et sharvit hazahav" except for the one that the king might raise his scepter to allow him to come in "v'chayah" and that person will live. "V'ani" but as for me "lo nikreiti lavo el hamelech zeh shloshim yom" I haven't been called in to come to the king for thirty whole days. But as you read through Esther's command to Mordechai, you hear all sorts of little subtle responses to every little thing that Mordechai said.
Lo yikarei is a playoff of Mordechai's "kol asher karahu" almost as if Mordechai said I'm telling you about everything that befell me. She says I'll tell you about something befalling me. You told me about this "dat nitnah b'Shushan habirah" about this terrible decree that was given in Shushan that's going to cause you to die. Well guess what? There's a decree that's going to cause me to die, and I haven't been called to the king for thirty days. So we all got our problems, Mordechai. You got your problems. I got my problems. That's what she says.
If you're Mordechai, what do you say back? It's a curious speech. Almost the opposite of what you think he ought to say. "Vayomer Mordechai l'hashiv el Esther" Mordechai says to respond to Esther. "Al t'dami b'nafsheich l'himaleit beit hamelech mikol haYehudim" don't imagine in your heart of hearts that somehow you can escape the fate of the Jews and be the one Jew that survives hidden away in the palace. "Ki im hachareish tacharishi ba'eit hazot" because if you stay silent now "revach v'hatzalah ya'amod laYehudim mimakom acher" salvation is going to come from some other place. One way or the other we Jews will be saved. "V'at u'beit avich toveidu" it will be you and your father's house that will be destroyed. "U'mi yodei'a" and who knows "im la'eit kazot higat l'malchut" if it was for this moment that you've become queen.
It's like everything about Mordechai's speech is strange. First, isn't this a little harsh "al t'dami b'nafsheich l'himaleit beit hamelech mikol haYehudim" don't think that you alone can escape the wrath of Haman by hiding in the king's palace. Why would you even accuse her of that?
Second of all, this strange reverse psychology. I mean if I was Mordechai I would say Esther, we need you. This isn't a time to be thinking about your own life. So you'll get killed if you come before the king. All right. At least you sacrificed your life for your people. At least you went down nobly. So they'll name high schools after you. But Esther we need you. Please. Instead what does he say? Esther, you think we need you? We don't need you. If you keep silent, we'll be just fine.
Then, strangely, right after he says we don't really need you, Esther, it's like, we need you, Esther. Because then he says who knows if it was for this moment that you became queen. You can change everything with this moment. So do we need you or don't we need you, Esther? What is he even saying to her?
The first thing to notice about Mordechai's response is that it begins with the word: Vayomer. Gone is that verb about 'commanding' Esther. He abandons the position of authority figure. You should listen to me for other reasons…
The second thing to notice about what Mordechai's doing here… is that he seems to intuits that, evidently she never divulged to the king that she was Jewish. Mordechai finally get that – he understands it – and that really changes everything. He completely understands now truth of her terrible dilemma. What's Esther going to do now? So here's what he says: Forget about the "command" I issued. That's not really the reason to listen to me. And forget about the talk of impending doom, forget about all that death stuff. That's also not the reason to listen to me.
You know why? Everything's actually going to be okay. The truth is the complete reverse of what you see here. It's not that we are all going to die one way or another. We are all going to be saved one way or another. God has many paths to salvation. It will happen, Esther, even without you, if need be. So, why then should you act? You should act cuz, even though your actions dont make a difference as to whether we live or die... They still matter a great deal. They matter to you.
You know Esther, I get what you'd like to do, instinctively. You'd like to just remain silent. You know, I get it, you never told the king you were a Jew, and it seems so awkward to go to him now like, Sire, there's this little thing I forgot to tell you about way back when…
But the problem is Esther, it wouldn't be neutrality that silence; it would be complicity. If you stay quiet, it means: You will have known about Haman's decree, and you will have gone along with it, through your lack of protest. If you do that, Esther, you'll forever be associated with Haman. Your legacy throughout the generations will be ruined, morally, forever.
No, Esther, you can't do that. This is the moment you have to choose who you stand with. You need to stand with us, not because it's going to make a difference for us, but because it will make a difference for you. You can change whether it will be you who is gonna be the one who saves us, or whether it will be someone else. Is this going to be Megillat Esther or it is going to be the megillah of someone else? Only you can make that choice.
You know, in a way, what Mordechai is asking of Esther here, is nothing more or less than to emulate how it is that he acted towards her. He was the omen, he was the faithful one. And now, he's asking that of her. Because ask yourself: Why, exactly, did he send those chocolate chip cookies to her? He didn't do it because he was trying to change the course of history. He did it because love and loyalty to this young woman who he took under his wing, it demanded that. The chocolate chip cookies couldn't change anything for Esther. But it changed everything for her. it was Mordechai's way of saying: I'm on your side. You still matter to me.
And now, Mordechai's telling Esther, that's what you need to do too. You need to go to the king and beseech him on behalf of your people – not because you are changing the course of history, but because love and loyalty to her nation demand it. You have to say: I'm on your side. You, my nation, still matter to me, and I'm choosing to stand with you. And Esther listens to this, and that's exactly what she does.
I want to return now to the question that I began with: What's the deal with these two mitzvot hayom, these two mitzvot of Purim Day – mishlo'ach manot and matanot la'evyonim. We asked: Are these mitzvot generic markers of happiness, or do they somehow express something profound about the holiday itself?
I think we can now see how they do.
Finding Meaning in Mishloach Manot and Matanot La'evyonim Today
You see, when Esther and Mordechai chose Mishloach Manot and Matanot Laevyonim as the ways in which you and I would, forevermore, memorialize the miracle in which they participated – they were saying something about that miracle. Because the miracle of Purim, we think of it as this grand, and epic thing, God coming from behind the scenes to save millions of lives. And that's certainly true. But it's only a part of the story. That epic miracle depended upon another story, a very private story. A story of love, trust and faith between just two people: Mordechai and Esther, in two very precarious moments between them: The moment Mordechai sent those chocolate chip cookies to Esther, and the moment Esther reciprocated, sending clothes to Mordechai…
Mordechai's gift of chocolate chip cookies to her, they didn't make a difference; it couldn't do anything to get her out of the harem. But in another way, his gift made all the difference to her. It was a gift of unconditional love. It showed he stood by her side. Once he did that, she would reciprocate with a gift of her own – those clothes when she thought he was destitute. She would show him that she cared, too – and these twin acts of care, they laid the groundwork for everything that followed.
To celebrate their victory, Mordechai and Esther asked us to do what they did. To recreate a moment like this in our own lives. So we give gifts to the poor just like Esther did.
Interestingly, Jewish law states that you aren't supposed to check too carefully, on Purim, whether the poor-looking person standing before you is really destitute or is just acting the part. Why? Well, maybe we are mimicking Esther's original act of gifts of clothes to Mordechai. He wasn't really poor; he was only apparently an evyon. But by reaching out to him, she started a conversation and learned an important and shocking truth about him. Maybe we too, are meant to reach out to the poor and start those conversations; start to learn the truth about their lives.
And Mishloach Manot? Yes, we make a long list of friends we give mishloach manot to. But there are also people who aren't on that list anymore. People who have moved on in some way. Maybe they've left town. Maybe they've left our culture and our ways of doing things behind. And the question that perhaps Purim puts to us is: What now? Are we willing to close the door on these people; are we willing to simply let go and move on?
On Purim, maybe we are being asked to reach out to people like that, people on the periphery, people we could otherwise give up on – with a little gift of our own. A little package that says I'm thinking of you. You still matter to me. By doing that, we have the chance to change someone's sense of anguish into hope. And if we do that, we will have done what Mordechai and Esther did for one another. We will have recreated the seed of the story of Purim – with our own act of unconditional love.
When we give gifts in this way, we are honoring the hidden story of the day, the human triumph that Mordechai and Esther themselves saw as the core of the Purim miracle. And that's not a little thing at all.
A good Purim to you.