Of all the Jewish holidays, none is anticipated by little children more than the festival of Purim.
The historical origins of the celebration reside in the Babylonian conquest of Israel and the Jewish exile under Persia and Media during the 4th Century BCE. The wicked viceroy Haman conspired with the opportunistic King Ahasuerus to eliminate the “Jewish problem” once and for all by declaring “open season” on Jews all across the empire.
All hope seemed lost. But literally overnight, through a series of apparent coincidences, the King turned against his evil viceroy and ordered him hanged on the gallows that Haman himself had built for the execution of Mordecai, the leader of the Jews. And then, in an extraordinary reversal, Mordecai the Jew was elevated to the position of viceroy left vacant by Haman.
The theme of reversal figures prominently in the traditional observance of Purim, which is seen as a kind of alter-ego to the solemn holiday of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. In place of fasting there is feasting. In place of prayerful reflection there is revelry. In place of the simple white garments of purity there are costumes and spectacle.
Children especially look forward to dressing up on Purim. But Purim is in no way a Jewish Halloween. Just the opposite: children dress up and go door-to-door not to ask for treats and threaten tricks, but to give away gifts of food to others.
Which brings me to the point of this narrative, with only one more small digression.
NO DEED TOO SMALL
Every Friday morning I stop by the local Jewish bookstore to pick up for my wife a copy of Mishpacha Magazine, which is published for the Torah-observant community. It contains several inserts, including special sections for children of varying ages. Our youngest daughter read them cover-to-cover for years, but since she moved out of the house those sections have been largely ignored.
One afternoon, our friends Dave and Donna* dropped by with their young boys, who immediately found the children’s inserts and disappeared into them. From that day on, I’ve brought the inserts with me each week to Friday night services, where I pass them along to Dave, who then passes them along to his boys. It’s one of those little acts of kindness that costs nothing, takes almost no effort, and can make a big difference.
And, in this case, it made a really big difference to a little boy and his mother.
TURNABOUT IS FAIR PLAY
Donna had recently ordered her son’s Purim costume online — a classic fireman’s outfit — when the little boy came home from school announcing he no longer wanted to be a fireman for Purim. As he and his friends at school were discussing how they planned to dress up, one classmate declared that a fireman’s uniform was a “dumb costume.” As only a child can be, Donna’s son was mortified and immediately decided that no way he was dressing up as a fireman.
For the rest of the week, his mother tried to cajole the boy into reconsidering, but he would have none of it, leaving Donna uncertain whether to swallow the cost of the unwanted outfit or tell her son he could either dress up as a fireman or as nothing at all.
Then came Friday night.
I handed the magazines over to Dave as usual, without even looking at them. Tucked in among them was a special Purim insert filled with pages and pages of costume ideas. And there, on the front cover, was a little boy wearing a fireman’s uniform identical to the one Donna had ordered for her son.
So Purim came early this year to the home of Donna and Dave, whose son is bouncing with excitement over the fireman’s costume he’ll be wearing for the holiday.
One good deed leads to another, teaches the Talmud. The ripples of kindness spread out across and beneath the surface of human interaction in ways we can’t even imagine, and in ways we may never notice. But every once in a while, we get a glimpse of how the bread we cast upon the waters finds its way to unexpected places, and how little things can make a big difference.
We all want to make a difference, to change the world for the better, to bring good into the lives of others. But we don’t need a big stage to do it. As King Solomon says, “A little light dispels much darkness.” And a little kindness can produce much joy.
Do you have a story about some small, kind act that had a big, unexpected payoff? If so, I’d like to hear it. Please contact me here.
*Personal details have been changed to protect privacy.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and radio personality, is a former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist who lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri. His new book is Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages, a marriage of King Solomon’s proverbs with the mysterious beauty of the Mona Lisa, is filled with discovery, insight, and inspiration.