Every year our shul makes a large Purim seudah open to the entire Charleston Jewish community. It is a party for the whole family with food, music, and children’s entertainment. There is always great energy in the room and a real sense of Simchas Purim. However, this year’s party was marred by an unsightly scene playing out on the sidewalk in front of the shul. While families were filing into the building with big smiles on their faces, a homeless man planted himself down on the sidewalk, leaning up against the brick wall that surrounds the shul property. He was filthy and looked half inebriated. He sat next to a pile of empty beer cans and had a cardboard sign which read, “Homeless, Hungry, God Bless.” No one knew quite what to do.
The shul of course wanted to look nice for those attending the Purim party, and a homeless man sitting outside didn’t really promote the desired image. Some congregants asked our Police officer on duty if he could remove the man – but the man wasn’t doing anything illegal. Others instructed their families to enter the building through a side door to avoid the offensive sight. Students walking home from a local private school detoured to the other side of the street and most people just tried to pretend that the homeless man wasn’t there. Maybe if we ignore him, he’ll go away, and we can get on with our party unhindered by such a nuisance, the all thought.
But the homeless man was not cursing, he was not crude or mean. He just sat there, with his head bowed, and his tattered jeans and raincoat covered in dirt. An old baseball cap sat upon his unkempt hair, and his face was bruised and worn, like it had been visited by too many of life’s hardships.
After more than an hour, and the Purim party well underway, my congregants and my wife were calling and texting me asking me where I was and why I was not yet at the shul. And so I got up from my spot on the sidewalk, brushed some of the dirt off my clothes, took out my false teeth, and entered the shul. And gave many people who had passed by the homeless man with a grimace- quite a shock- even though they know their rabbi’s costumes tend to get creative and crazy on Purim.
Every year for the Purim Seudah, I put away my suit and tie, which I wear 364 days a year and go in disguise. One year, I was an old and bald rabbi complete with gray beard, another time, I shaved my beard and was a hippy with a mustache. A lot of thought and effort goes into the disguise and I always try to get into the character I am wearing so no one will know who I am, and usually, it works. It puts a smile on people’s faces to see their usually formal rabbi looking so different, and my congregants have come to look forward to seeing what the rabbi will look like each year. And that was how the homeless disguise initially took shape. But what started as a costume to catch my congregants off guard became a powerful learning experience for their rabbi.
In shul, we had just learned that on Purim we give charity to all those who ask, whether or not they are truly deserving. If we give indiscriminately, perhaps God will give to us without scrutinizing our worthiness. According to the Rama in Shulchan Aruch, this extends to all needy, Jews and gentiles. And here right before my congregants, was what they saw as a man in need, and they were challenged as to how to respond.
On the one hand, how can you avoid helping a person in need? But at the same time, maybe he is dangerous and you shouldn’t get too close. Maybe by giving him handouts you’re doing him no service as it will just further empower him to continue a life on the street. Or maybe due to his mental health or bad choices, he just doesn’t see any other options. I certainly don’t have the answer for how to rid the world of poverty or solve the homelessness that is developing on the streets of Charleston, or anywhere else for that matter. But I do believe that it should bother us. Every homeless person that we see on the street should tug at our heartstrings, whether or not we give him or her a few dollars.
While most people did their best to ignore our “homeless man”, others stopped to try to help. Some people gave loose change. Some gave larger bills. A few people bent down and asked him his name and if they could help. One person driving down the street double parked his car to get out and sit down next to the man, offering companionship and 10 dollars. (Disclaimer: I quietly revealed my true identity to anyone who gave me money, and returned the money, asking them to keep my identity a secret.)
On the day of Purim we are charged with the great mitzvah of Matanos Le’evyonim, charity for the poor. We write checks to Od Yosef Chai and other wonderful organizations to dispel our obligation, and in our mostly affluent communities here in the U.S. we very rarely actually interface with real evyonim, poor people, on Purim day. Our sages wanted us to feel a sense of care and responsibly on Purim to provide for those lacking the means to make their own Purim feasts. However more often than not we see the mitzvah of Matanos Le’evyonim as just another mitzvah, rather than an opportunity to care for another human being, an opportunity to be me’sameach those who do not feel the joy of the day.
Even though I am, thank G-d not a homeless person, playing that role even for a short time gave me a small insight into how one feels when people take the time to show kindness. The people who stopped to talk to me and took time from their own seudah to care about me, showed me the great power of the smallest act of chesed and the deep wisdom behind the mitzvah of Matanos Le’evyonim. Giving charity on Purim is not just about the money. It’s about seeing a person in pain and trying to bring them salvation – is that not precisely what Hashem did for us in Shushan? Every Jew, rich and poor, was saved during the times of Mordechai and Esther and therefore all should have the opportunity to celebrate. There is a sense of achdus that emerges from the Purim story which should pervade our own experience of the day.
And so while this year a lot of thought was put into a costume, a lot more was learned about a far more important aspect of Purim, the mitzvah of matanos l’evyonim.