Monday, May 28, 2007

Spending Wisely

If it weren’t for Biblical and Rabbinic mandates to carry them out at predetermined times, there are a lot of mitzvos that I would never get around to doing. This is certainly true of Shabbos, which quite literally forces me out of the office for 25 hours each week, but it is equally—and somewhat surprisingly—true of seemingly “fun” mitzvos, whose performance would seem welcome, but are nonetheless deferred, due to the natural inertia of life, until that elusive “free time” makes a rare appearance. This bleak reality is what transforms an otherwise spirited mitzvah like mishloach manos into a chore that requires prioritizing and planning.

(For the purposes of this essay, I will employ the textual term “mishloach manos” rather than the more popular, ”shalach manos.” Nevertheless, I reserve the right in the future to refer to the third Shabbos meal as “shalashudos” over “seudah shelishis.” Sorry if that bothers some of you.)

From the beginning, I never gave mishloach manos its proper due. I have always prided myself in being able to fulfill mishloach manos on the cheap—looking to spend under three dollars per unit, including the packaging. The key to success for this strategy is finding those bulky, yet inexpensive items; bags of popcorn, for example.

My justification for such thrift is that, four weeks before Pesach or no four weeks before Pesach, no one really needs or wants the junk. (Particularly unnecessary are the ever popular chocolate Laffy Taffys, which seem to mysteriously appear in kosher markets in late February/early March for the exclusive purpose of inclusion in everybody’s mishloach manos. They have become the tribbles of Purim, but I have never met anyone who actually buys them to take home and eat.)

So you’ll forgive me if I tend to think of mishloach manos—beyond the strict fulfillment of the obligation of “two foods to one person”—as a waste of money. I’d rather spend my hard-earned dollars on the other half of the verse, and put it toward matanos la’evyonim.

And, in fact, that’s exactly how halachah prioritizes our obligations.

The Rambam, quoting the verse, underscores the superior importance of matanos la’evyonim “to revive the spirit of the downtrodden, to revive the heart of the depressed.” And I have always followed this path in planning my Purim priorities, always committing toward matanos la’evyonim at least twice the dollar amount spent on mishloach manos.

Then there’s the matter of The List.

How many people actually need to receive my cheapo package? My best friends? My very best friends? Neighbors? Shul acquaintances?

So I began this Purim season with every intention of further whittling down last year’s already-scaled-down mishloach manos recipient list. I began by pulling up last year’s list: 38 names. No problem, I thought. I’ll easily get it below thirty.

But at the end of the day, my vanity prevailed, preventing me from jeopardizing all the good will I had built up over the years with three-dollar, sans Laffy Taffy, gift bags. My list, like most people’s, is the social network I see daily, or at least every Shabbos. We talk, we joke, we shmooze, we kibbitz. The wheels of social grace greased by the transfer of meaningless nosh. I can’t cut those people.

I did manage to trim the list to 37, but only because one of my friends had moved to Philadelphia.

But then I began thinking about the people who weren’t on my list—those I smile at, but don’t shmooze with; those I may say hello to, but don’t kibbitz with. What about them? Why weren’t their names on my list? I’m not talking about the people with large social circles who were in the same predicament as me. I’m talking about the people who had a small or no circle, whose network of friends didn’t reach double digits. After all, wouldn’t they better appreciate the small gesture of friendship and recognition that mishloach manos confers?

Mishloach manos tends to be a paradoxical mitzvah: those you give to generally could care less. But those who would really appreciate the thoughtfulness of a small package—single people, older people, secular people—generally aren't thought of.

I daresay that in today’s day and age—and I speak strictly as an American; the story in Israel and other countries may be very different—the downtrodden are not poor of money, but poor of company. The depressed are not lacking food and shelter, but friends and social attachment. The true measure today of reviving the heart and spirit of these people, therefore, is to extend the hand of friendship. Mishloach manos would accomplish that nicely.

So in the end my list grew. In fact, it pretty much doubled. So much for cutting back; instead I cut forward. My mishloach manos budget tripled, as I hired some local kids to help with the deliveries. Oh, and I eschewed popcorn and gave dried fruit with grape juice. Healthy stuff.

The results were immediate. At eleven a.m., the phone rang. It was a fellow from shul. He called to say how much he appreciated the mishloach manos. The warmth and gratitude he conveyed was wholehearted. I have never, in my thirty-something years or Purim related exchanges, received such a phone call. A thank-you card from another beneficiary of my new policy arrived two days later. Another first.

One more first: Despite my donations through my two regular shiluchim, as well as my handouts to everyone who asked (even though nine in ten were collecting for the very same charity), I still managed to spend less on matanos la’evyonim than on mishloach manos this year. But I did so with the full confidence that Mordechai and Esther would have approved. And while I can’t be certain I fully succeeded in reviving the spirits of the downtrodden and depressed, I’m glad I made the attempt.

And did so, I might add, without the assistance of chocolate Laffy Taffys.