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.


Blogger WomanHonorThyself said...

hiyaz Cloo..thanks for visiting my humble abode..please come again!!

Tue May 29, 05:45:00 PM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

some single people get lots of shalach manos - fyi

Tue May 29, 07:05:00 PM  
Blogger Ayelet said...

Well, better late than never :) My friends already know that they're safe from getting junk form me. I don't feel obligated to give to everyone who gives me which saves me a lot of unnecessary stress. Nobody seems to mind and, in fact, I've had several people thank me for not adding to their heap of junk to get rid of! And my neighbor who is also my dear friend? She duct tapes an orange to a can of diet Coke and calls it a day - and hosts the warmest, cleanest, funnest se'udah in town! Some people have held on to the spirit.

Tue May 29, 11:59:00 PM  
Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Look who is back.

Wed May 30, 02:03:00 AM  
Blogger Nice Jewish Guy said...

I share many of your sentiments. I also felt that the point of "shlach moonos" was to foster and develop new relationships, as well as cultivate existing ones. I do agree that the entire situation has gotten way out of hand, with elaborate baskets that pile high to the sky. Many shuls do a "round robin" "shlach moonos" that people join in. But ten of course there are then those people who you feel you have to give to individually too. I always liked the theme SMs-- this year I did a pharmaceutical theme, with homemade drug-like packaging and fonts, cute product names, and even a funny package insert with "prescribing and side effect information". Of course, not everyone has time to do that.

One of the best SMs I ever gave was a bologna sandwich and a Coke.

Wed May 30, 09:53:00 AM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

Are Pesach and Shavuos next?

Fri Jun 01, 12:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Time warp. Good to see you back.

Fri Jun 01, 01:18:00 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

welcome back!

Tue Jun 05, 10:27:00 AM  
Blogger FrumGirl said...

Ooh you came back

Tue Jun 19, 02:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Limey said...

what about the people you insult by not giving
lulei he'emanti it would defeat the purpose to cut back

Tue Jun 19, 06:20:00 PM  
Blogger Lvnsm27 said...

great post

Sun Jul 08, 02:44:00 AM  
Blogger Miriam said...

can't one just give to one male and one female? probably just in theory....

Tue Jul 10, 04:42:00 PM  
Blogger aoc gold said...

At The Seaside


When I was down beside the sea

A wooden spade they gave to me

To dig the sandy shore.


The holes were empty like a cup

In every hole the sea camp up,

Till it could come no more.

-----by age of conan

Fri Aug 22, 10:44:00 PM  

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