I have a neighbor who seems to outdo herself, never mind everyone else, each year with elaborate family theme costumes and mishloach manot for Purim. I don’t know how many people they give to, but what they do is off the charts as far as being elaborate. They’ve been Smurfs and board games and British royalty, all of it incredibly professionally done and with beautiful mishloach manot packages to go along with the theme.
While I admire her creativity, I know I will never reach her level, and don’t aspire to. Growing up, I never really associated Purim with any particular angst or pressure to make fantastically elaborate mishloach manot. Other than the angst of making a list and planning a delivery route, of course–but that was primarily my mother’s domain, and Not My Problem.
What I knew about mishloach manot was that I loved it. I loved the organizational aspect of setting everything up on the dining room table. I loved the excitement of driving around with my father (and later, on my own), jumping in and out of the car with the goodies. Most of all, I loved the experience of doing all that while everyone else was doing the same. In my small-but-not-too-small Jewish community, the streets on Purim day were always filled with cars pulling in and out of driveways, the drivers pausing to chat, admire costumes, or simply smile and wish each other a “happy Purim.” The whole experience was exhilarating.
And if I noticed a difference between my family’s standard paper-plate-and-plastic-baggie motif, and the more elaborate presentations received from some of our friends, I didn’t care. At least, not enough to feel any sort of pressure. At most, I was annoyed to have to clean up all the little bits of confetti and such.
But after a recent email from the rabbi of a shul we attend, I have been thinking about it more. In his letter, our rabbi pointed out that “many individuals feel pressured to devote much time and energy, and even funds, to this endeavor and in the end–as we all well know–the majority of the food simply goes to waste.” He urged that we “return to a simpler system and have all the members of our family give only a handful of mishloach manot and devote the resources saved to the more important mitzvah of “matanot l’evyonim” (assisting the poor).”
On one hand, I was thrilled to see this email. I abhor waste in all its forms; though I cannot claim to be completely innocent of wastefulness, I react viscerally whenever my kids toss a half-eaten banana in the garbage, or I discover a forgotten, fuzzy piece of produce in the fridge. My kids (and I) certainly eat more Purim junk than they (we) should, simply because I can’t bring myself to throw it away. So I would be thrilled to see the amount of food in these packages toned down–along with expensive, unnecessary, and often messy packaging. And my aversion to waste certainly extends to time and energy, so yes, let’s get rid of that excess as well!
I also abhor pressure, and the idea that anyone would devote more time/energy/funds to something than they want or need to, simply because it seems that everyone else does, upsets me possibly even more than those half-eaten bananas.
And yet, there was something about the rabbi’s letter that bugged me, and I realized it was in that one line: “give only a handful of mishloach manot.”
I certainly can’t argue against the notion that we should devote less money to waste and more to the poor. But I think we have to consider more than that in finding our balance–and, perhaps, consider toning down the quality of what we do, as opposed to the quantity.
While I see the rabbi’s logic, and would applaud anyone who chooses to go the “handful of mishloach manot” route, it would make me sad if this became the community norm. Because what would happen then to the traditions of delivery? If we all deliver to fewer homes, when will I get to see the community out in full force, celebrating together?
The concept of community is integral to Purim–especially the mitzvah of mishloach manot, which I would argue was instituted with the express purpose of bringing Jews together. How else can we understand why this mitzvah even exists? Why not simply give gifts to the poor and be done? I think the people of Shushan (where the story of Purim took place) and its environs, along with the Rabbis and Jewish communities throughout the centuries who maintained these practices, wanted more than just generosity. They wanted to send food, “each one to his friend.”
The Talmud tells of two scholars who used to exchange meals with each other on Purim; later commentaries explain that this exchange fulfilled their obligation of mishloach manot. One might ask: Why go through the motions of this exchange, when no one is really “giving” any net value? But maybe that is exactly the point. We don’t give mishloach manot so that we will have less than before, or even so another will have more than before; that’s why we give to the poor. The reason to give to friends is purely as a display of friendship–so it works even if you are simply going through the motions of “giving.” It’s the thought that counts, right?
According to the Talmud, the basic requirement is to give two foods to one friend. And no one should be embarrassed for doing exactly that. It is up to each of us to find the precise balance that makes sense for our personalities and our budget, without judgment of ourselves or others. Just like it is up to each of us to find our own balance of priorities in everything else we do–without imposing, or caving to, pressure.
But, alongside the reminder to avoid going overboard, I hope we can avoid the opposite extreme as well. The fun of putting something together, even if it’s silly–and the fun of seeing what my more creative friends put together–has become a part of Purim joy. I don’t feel pressured to live up to my neighbor’s standard; on the contrary, I am happy for her that she has this outlet for her creative energies, and I look forward to seeing what she does each year. And the experience of sharing it all, in those few hours of delivery, is tremendously important to me as a communal experience. The Jews are out in full force, and we’re happy. We’re happy to see each other; we’re happy to give to each other; we’re just happy with each other.
As we all strive to achieve the proper balance–let’s remember that in addition to those reminders to prioritize assisting the poor, the same scholars also state that, “Anyone who increases sending to friends, he is praiseworthy.” In other words: the more, the merrier. Let’s not neglect the imperative to provide ourselves, our children, and our communities with this tremendous opportunity for giving, sharing, laughing, and joining together as one.