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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

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Purim: God, neighbour and self

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Megillat Esther tells the Jewish People to keep the days of Purim “as days of feasting and gladness, and sending portions of food to one another and gifts to the poor.” It is the responsibility of all Jews to give two portions of food to a family member or friend (mishloach manot), and two bits of tzedakah to two poor people (matanot le’evyonim).

These two mitzvot do not start and stop with the self, but instead require interaction between us and others. The Torah refers to such a mitzvah as ben adam l’chavero – between a person and his friend.

There is another category of mitzvah in the Torah, however, called ben adam l’Makom, between a person and God, such as learning Torah.

But shouldn’t there be a third? What about the mitzvot we do to strengthen our souls, such as lashon naki, speaking clean language? Shouldn’t such a category exist? We’ll call it ben adam l’atzmo – a mitzvah between a person and himself.

An answer to this question might emanate from the idea that it is our task to make our existence God-centric, one that requires some negation of the self. In the Tower of Babel story, we find the sin of those who built the tower was their self-centredness and attempt to remove God from the picture. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). Because the people of Shinar were motivated by their desire to increase their own reputation, not by the Divine nature of reality, they were punished. From this we see that there is no reason for mitzvot between a person and himself. While speaking “clean language” reflects well on an individual, the real reason we are commanded to communicate in such a way is so that we can “see ourselves in the image of God.”

Another school within Judaism states the opposite – that indeed God created the world for each one of us. Every person is commanded to be happy and to rest on Shabbat. We are told to give tzedakah, but not too much so that we do not ourselves become poor. It would seem from this – a recognition of individual needs – that a category of mitvot ben adam l’atzmo makes sense.

Perhaps the answer lies in the middle. The Jewish People are commanded to accept the Divine spirit as fundamental to their lives – hence the mitzvot ben adam l’Makom. In order to achieve this, however, Jews must also work within their world, to love our neighbour like ourselves, a condition of humanity thought to be more important than any other precept in the Torah: hence ben adam l’chavero.

The conduit to achieving these two goals is in fact the self, for how can I love my neighbour if I do not first love myself? So, while a third category of ben adam l’atzmo is in fact discussed, it appears to be secondary to the two others so that we do not get lost in ourselves and forget God and the importance of community. (Interestingly, while it is prohibited to put ourselves at the centre of existence, it appears God did just that.)

Mishloach manot and matanot le’evyonim are mitzvot that require the self to actualize but cannot start or stop with the need to do good. They must extend far beyond into a Godly place where we are commanded to love our neighbours like ourselves. Happy Purim.


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