How Purim Can Fill an Emotional Need for Connection
I never really “got” Purim as a young adult. The endless noisemaking during the M’gillah reading felt tiresome and the need to feel happy at the parties reminded me of the same pretense as New Year’s Eve. It was only during my rabbinic studies in Jerusalem that I fell in love with this holiday – through the mitzvah of mishloach manot.
Mishloach manot literally means “sending portions,” and refers to the practice of giving gifts of at least two kinds of prepared food to friends on Purim. It is one of the four main mitzvot (commandments) of Purim, along with hearing the Book of Esther, giving generously to tzedakah (using money to do the work of world-repair or, literally, justice), and having a Purim feast.
My practice had always been to put some candy together and give it in non-descript brown paper bags to friends at parties on Purim night. Given that this was my understanding of the mitzvah (commandment), I was surprised when, years later, my Jerusalem neighbor’s daughter came over on Purim morning with a beautifully decorated tray filled with cooked chicken, soup, noodle kugel, cookies, and wine – a full meal! I thanked her and looked outside to the street where I saw at least a dozen other young people walking from house to house with similarly abundant baskets of food deliveries. My wife and I felt so loved and well thought about by our neighbor, which is the whole point of mishloach manot. Although the mitzvah of tzedakah fills a material need for those lacking food on Purim, mishloach manot fill an emotional need to know one is connected to and loved by the people around them.
Why would we need such a reminder of something so basic as our connection to others?
While it is a spiritual truth that all humans, and indeed, all life, is connected in a large web of interdependence, it is easy to forget these connections. The Hebrew word for “universe” is the same as the word for “hidden.” This is a world of hiddenness in which it is easy to forget. To paraphrase social researcher, Brene Brown, “Our belonging to one another across every social divide can never be lost. But it can be forgotten.” We need occasional reminders of what is true about us, and this is the role of mishloach manot.
Its function as a reminder is one of the reasons no blessing is said before performing the mitzvah of mishloach manot. According to the great 20th century rabbi, Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, “The purpose of mishloach manot is to increase peace, love and friendship.” He goes on to explain that increasing friendship is a constant, year-round mitzvah. We have rituals like mishloach manot once a year simply to remind us of what is always true. As a general principle, we do not make blessings on mitzvot that are in effect constantly, like loving God or remembering the exodus from Egypt.
Mishloach manot revived Purim for me. I love the idea that one of the main things we are trying to accomplish on this holiday is to increase connection and friendship. Even if we don’t always have the most creative costumes, my family makes an effort to create colorful, nourishing food packages for people in our community. We include grape juice, with something healthy and savory like hummus and vegetables and something sweet and fun like chocolate or candy. When we are particularly industrious, we will cook something, but mishloach manot don’t need to be anything fancy. We recently added a practice to respond to the divisive politics in our communities. We make sure to deliver mishloach manot to at least a few people we know have different political views from us on Israel and domestic issues.
The pervasive polarization dominating our country makes it even easier to forget our true connection. More than ever, we need the practice of mishloach manot to remind all of us of our essential connections to each other and to reweave the fabric of our communities.