Celebrating Purim, the rabbis tell us, entails four things: hearing the reading of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther), having a festive meal, giving gifts to the poor, and sending food packages to friends. Those are the four commandments of the day.
The first two make obvious sense to us. On the holiday we want to recall the story behind it, so we read Megillas Esther. And it is a festive occasion, and there’s no Jewish festival without food!
But why is there a special rule to give gifts to the poor, and food packages to friends? And if these are to be part of the holiday celebrations, doesn’t it make more sense to give gifts to your friends, and food to the poor?
I think these questions can be answered by understanding the message of the Purim holiday.
What do we learn in the Megillah? Haman plotted to destroy the entire Jewish nation. No one was exempt from the deadly decree. We were facing extermination, and only by listening to Mordechai were we saved.
There is an old saying that two Jews will give you three opinions. We have a lot of arguments. Purim reminds us that we’re all in this together, and all our arguments are like any squabble within the family.
Giving gifts to the poor, rather than food, has more long-term benefit. A person can only eat so much, but few have been known to turn down a raise. Thus giving money helps lift the poor person up, and shows brotherhood — that you care for him or her as a member of our family.
With friends, just the opposite is true. A person who doesn’t need charity might not want to accept a gift of money, but a gift of food adds to the recipient’s festive meal, putting more delicacies on the table. For friends and neighbors, that is what increases the same feeling of brotherhood, with precisely the opposite sort of gift.
Although it is not a specific commandment, we often see families choosing to share the festive meal, as well. There’s no question that by exchanging food packages and sharing meals, the bonds in every community are strengthened by the Purim celebration.
All four of the rabbinic enactments on Purim share this common theme: to remind us that as Jews, we are all family. And that is a message we should take away from Purim, to remember throughout the year!