Sweet lessons in a basket

The Jewish Internet with Mark Mietkiewicz, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

The ninth chapter of The Book of Esther states in verse 19: “Therefore the Jews of the villages, that dwelt in the unwalled towns, made the 14th day of the month of Adar a day of gladness and feasting, a holiday, and of sending portions to one another (bit.ly/manot1).”

That’s why on March 24, Jews around the world will scurry from doorstep to doorstep depositing baskets laden with goodies at the homes of friends and strangers, too. This month, a look at one of the most delightful customs on the Jewish calendar: mishloach manot.

Mark Mietkiewicz
Mark Mietkiewicz

Why does the megillah command us to perform this mitzvah? Surprisingly, one source traces this tradition to the evil Haman.

As Rabbi Yehudah Prero explains, “Haman described the nation of Israel to Ahashverus as a ‘people scattered abroad and dispersed amongst the people.’

Some commentators explain that Haman was pointing out that the Jewish nation was vulnerable because they did not all get along: there were disagreements and disputes among them so that in their hearts they were scattered and dispersed…To foster feelings of closeness, kinship, and love, we send gifts to each other on Purim (bit.ly/manot2).”

Prero also suggests that our happiness on Purim is to be expressed through festive feasts that clearly not everyone can afford. But because we do not want “to embarrass the poor, the rich give poor gifts, and the poor give gifts to the rich. All the members of the nation of Israel give indiscriminately to their brothers and sisters so all can celebrate Purim properly, without any shame.”

Although the megillah clearly states that we should exchange food on Purim, curiously, there is no blessing associated with the mitzvah.

Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg suggests that this makes perfect sense when you consider human nature.

If there were a blessing, it would have included the word v’tzivanu, “and He has commanded us.” However, it is preferable to give of your own free will from a sense of love for your fellow Jew. If one gives mishloach manot because one was commanded to do so, this would lessen the element of love (bit.ly/manot7).

In that light, CLAL, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, has created a meditation that can be recited as you put together your mishloach manot: “May I prepare and give these gifts with a full and open heart.

May we be blessed on Purim and on each day of our lives with light, gladness and honor and with the gift to express our friendship (bit.ly/manot8).”

It is very difficult to imagine these days, but mishloach manot was practiced during the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto.

From the writings of Hillel Zeitlin in 1942, we learn that Jews exchanged food during Purim in the ghetto. According to the article Solidarity and Vitality During the Holocaust, “at the end, each Jew remained with the same meager quantity of food, but the fact that his poor meal represented the fulfillment of the mitzvah of mishloach manot revived his soul, reinforced his inner strength and even aroused a feeling of song and joyousness within him (bit.ly/manot9).”

Rina Peled wants to fill her gift basket with something more substantial than sweets — like kindness, consideration, love and other qualities she longs to give of herself.

Writing in Hebrew in Mishloach Manot of Love, she tells us that her daughter’s teacher should get a basket filled with “consideration” for the hard work she puts in. Her own kids should receive gifts of “tranquility and acceptance” while her husband deserves “unending kindness.”

And “maybe this year, I’ll attach to the basket I send to my father…a bit of forbearance and patience. Something that will symbolize the fact that I will wait until he finishes his sentences and I won’t interrupt as if I knew what he was going to say…something that will show him that he is truly important to us all (bit.ly/manot11).”

Nowadays, it is not unusual for families to deliver dozens of boxes on Purim. But some of the truly moving stories of mishloach manot tell how a solitary bundle can change the lives of the recipient and the donor.

In Rediscovering Purim: A Bronx Tale, we meet Bernie, a man who lives in a run-down neighborhood that had once been a thriving Jewish community.

Through the delivery of some mishloach manot, Bernie somewhat reluctantly welcomes a visitor, and then reconnects with traditions that had been forgotten long ago (bit.ly/manot10).

The author concludes, “That year, the holiday of Purim was brought to Bernie. On that day, Purim was not merely a forgotten memory celebrated elsewhere but something real, a cause for celebration. There are times when a seemingly small act can have the most profound effect upon another. It was a Purim I will never forget.”

Mark Mietkiewicz writes about resources for Jewish life to be found on the Internet. Contact him at highway@rogers.com.

To read the complete March 2016 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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