A Second Look at Purim “Groups”

The Yom Tov of Purim carries with it different mitzvos that are, in some way, unique to it. There is the reading of the Megillah, and mishloach manos, and, of course, matanos la’evyonim, the special mitzvah of taking care that the impoverished should also be able to be joyous and have what to eat on this day.

There is another halachah that is related to the mitzvah of matanos la’evyonim, and that is what Chazal tell us (Yerushalmi Megillah perek 1 halachah 4) that on the day of Purim, “Kol haposhet yad nosnim lo — anyone who stretches out a hand [for monetary assistance] should be given [money].” On Purim, if someone asks for tzedakah, there is no consideration given as to whether he really is as poor as he represents himself to be. If someone asks for tzedakah, we give him, no questions asked.

With this in mind, Purim has become a very important day for the bottom line of many important tzedakah organizations. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are collected on this day, as Klal Yisrael responds to this call to be extraordinarily giving.

When I was a bachur, Purim was spent with a group of friends collecting for different people in need. We would pile into a van and make our way from one side of town to another, stopping along the way at the homes of our rebbeim to share divrei Torah in the general spirit of happiness of the day.

I always thought that a good part of the reason bachurim go around collecting on Purim is to give them a share in this special mitzvah of the day of Purim. While everyone is either collecting money for themselves or disbursing to others, a bachur, who is supported by his parents, can only partake in it by going around and collecting for others. The valuable lessons one learns by doing this stay with him for the rest of his life. The feeling one gets when getting a donation that is smaller than expected really goes a long way toward inculcating an appreciation for what those less fortunate go through on a daily basis, and spending an entire day collecting money helps ingrain the middah of co-shouldering the burden of Klal Yisraels poor .

But developments in recent years have made me question if there still is a value in preserving this “minhag” or if, perhaps, it would be better for parents and yeshivos to find other things for their sons and talmidim to do on Purim.

In the years after I had “outgrown” the “Purim groups” stage of my life, some friends of mine, having kept up with some of the people for whom we had raised thousands of dollars over the Purims we had gone around together, still worked hard to continue raising funds for them. Younger bachurim we knew, or siblings of friends, were asked to put together groups so that the people who had come to rely on us would still be able to get a substantial amount of money before Pesach. But this is no longer possible.

My understanding of what happened is that one organization, in seeking to attract bachurim to choose to collect for them as opposed to one of the other worthy causes out there, had a brilliant idea. Why, they reasoned, don’t we treat them like professional fund-raisers and offer them a cut of what they collect? I guess it was wildly successful, because at this point it seems like almost everyone is taking that approach. This past Shabbos, a bachur told me how his group was getting paid no less than 35 percent of what they collected. A friend showed me an advertisement in a local publication where an organization proclaimed to bachurim that they would “meet or beat any advertised offer” to collect for them.

And so, instead of tzedakah on the day of Purim being about everyone getting a part in the mitzvah and the spiritual growth associated with it, our bachurim are now working on Purim.

And for what? Do they need to earn money to support themselves? Even without the option of earning money by collecting, these bachurim wouldn’t be going to work on Purim; they’d be doing what bachurim had been doing for years — collecting for no reason other than to do the mitzvah.

When I mentioned this to a friend of mine, he responded with (as many of you are undoubtedly thinking), “So what? It’s not such a big deal!”

But he is wrong. It is a big deal. Here’s why.

In Ahavas Chessed (chelek 1 6:9 and chelek 2, ch. 10) the Chofetz Chaim talks about the middah of “tzar ayin.” Suffice it to say that there is nothing positive about it. He explains that it is this attribute that causes someone to need to gain benefit in order to do chessed. While it is true that one can put his needs before those of others, the Chofetz Chaim warns, “Ach b’chegon zeh, tzarich ha’adam l’hisyashev heitev b’atzmo im b’emes ein yado maseges lazeh, ki hayetzer l’olam yefateihu she’ein yado maseges — In this instance, one needs to engage in deep introspection if he really does need this and can’t afford to do without it — because the yetzer hara will always try to convince him that he can’t afford to do without it” and he shouldn’t just do the chessed. Needing to benefit from every act of kindness makes one into a tzar ayin.

A professional fund-raiser has a good excuse to take money for his work — after all, he needs to support his family. But from the Chofetz Chaim it is quite clear that someone who doesn’t need to take money for raising money and does, is engaging in the behavior of a tzar ayin.

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, asks, “Why is the prohibition of charging interest so serious that Chazal tell us that when the passuk (Yechezkel 18:13) says ‘v’chai lo yichyeh,’ it means that someone who lends with ribbis (interest) won’t live at the time of techiyas hameisim? The person who is borrowing the money is ready to pay for it — because it is worth it to get that money now — so why should the person who is lending the money have such a dreadful punishment for charging interest?”

He answers that precisely because the lender is doing a chessed by lending to someone who is in need of a loan, to pervert it so that it becomes something to benefit from — a somewhat selfish act — that is the reason it is so severe. “V’zehu yesodo shel ha’issur, ki chamur meod hu la’asos maaseh mitzvah, ubesoch kach ‘litol l’atzmo’ — and that is the basis of the entire issur, because it is very serious to do a mitzvah and through that to ‘take for oneself.’”

Considering that, does it make sense for bachurim who are giving up their entire Purim to collect money for those in need to turn it from a great mitzvah into a day that revolves around “litol l’atzmo”?

Considering that this has become more or less accepted, who can fault the organizations that are trying to cover their bottom line for reaching out to bachurim in this way? Whoever started it, and altered the entire day for so many yeshivah bachurim to what it has become, surely has what to answer for. At this point that is akin to crying over spilt milk. But parents who care that their sons do what is right can repair this breach by actually teaching their children what is right and what is wrong.

Hopefully, it isn’t too late for that.