Monday, March 12, 2012

Mishloach Manot: What It Means To Give

Making masks
Flowers from the kids
I was recently at a Purim Seudah where one of the guests gave an interesting drasha on the significance of the word melech, or king in the megillah. He said that although the name of God does not explicitly appear, the word melech does many times. In that way, and through many other phrases, such as yavo for "he will come" and different literary devices, the name of God is in fact there, just hidden. He highlighted this to point out that maybe the hidden presence of God allows each one of us to shine as kings on this one day. In part, the job of a king is to drink and be merry and to revel in the wealth all around, which we all seem to do very well on Purim. But the other side is much deeper. It is the responsibility of the king to care for his people. As part of this concept, I have been reflecting a lot about the meaning of mishloach manot, mutual gifts of food and drink, and mattanot la-evyonim, charity to the poor in light of my recent experiences with the children at one of the moadoniyot where I work.

Last Tuesday I joined the children of Moadonit Afikim to go on a very special field trip. We painted each rosy face green for a witch and with the large cartoon mouth of a clown, with the long lashes of a princess and the triangular goatee of a pirate then headed off into the neighborhood armed with colorful totes full of fun ready-to-eat treats. It was hot and at first we couldn't find the building complex we were visiting and two of the children were complaining about their shoes. When we got there we were startled by two cats in a screeching fight and the doorway to the first apartment reeked from the smell of urine and spoiling garbage. The children threw their hands up in disgust and we showed them how to breath through their mouths and respect the people of the building by not complaining. We were there to give small presents of food and Purim decorations and to say chag Purim sameach to each of the elderly men and women we were about to meet.

Painting our masks
The children of the moadonit are always bickering, arguing and complaining. They have to be constantly be reminded to be grateful and thankful for the things we provide them and not to ruffle their noses at the color or flavor of a special candy we reward them with. We are always talking to them about using kind words and actions, for caring for others, and doing their best. Yet each day is a constant battle when combating so many external factors like their difficult home lives, poor backgrounds, emotional problems, anxiety, fear, anger, and for some, abuse.

But that Tuesday the kids forgot to be sad, accusatory, and to bicker the moment the first door at the first apartment opened. We sang out a cheery happy Purim and walked into a cozy, sunlit living room and piled onto to dusty sofas. One of the children held out a bag of mishloach manot and was immediately smothered by the old woman's excited hug. All around us were framed pictures of family and the woman greeted us with a smile so happy it could break your heart. Then, in a broken Hebrew laced with traces of the Spanish of her Argentinian upbringing, the old women began to make up an elaborate story full of color, laughter, and many different character voices. The children chuckled and smiled shyly as the woman's face stretched into silly expressions and she threw her chin up into the air with an animated chortle. She grabbed each of their cheeks as we filed out and thanked us for making her day.

The finished masks, peeled straight from their faces!
The next apartment was that of a cancer patient, ringing of the smell of medicine and cobwebs. The room was dark and cramped and at first the children were scared. But then we decided to sing a Purim song, which lifted the old woman temporarily out of her suffering to the point where she pushed herself away from her walker and joyously spun two of the children round and round. "I used to dream of being a ballerina, you know," she told them. "Thank you, thank you for reminding me."Another child handed her his mishloach manot and was also wrapped up in a hug.

At the third apartment, we sat and drank mitz petel, a popular Israeli children's drink and picked through candies as the grateful woman looked through her mishloach manot bag. "No one has ever brought me anything like this," she whispered over the din of an Israeli soap opera on the TV. Then she said something in Russian and one of the children's ears perked up. We discovered that the woman knew the little girl's mother and they exchanged a few excited words in Russian. We talked a bit about her childhood in Russia and ate a few more treats and then sang another song before saying good bye.

The fourth apartment was brimming with colorful paintings of large towering ghostlike figures, the scene of a village from way-back-when complete with a mule and cart, and another lovely sketch of the hills of Jerusalem. Peculiar cigar-thin hamentaschen were baking in the oven and there were pictures stacked between every painting. I was sitting on a rocker with one of the children cozily sitting on my lap when the madrichah of the moadonit asked the woman what her favorite Purim costume growing up had been. "Costume!?" the woman frustratingly exclaimed, "from what did we have time to wear Purim costumes? By the time I was eight I was an orphan of the Holocaust; I watched my parents and my brothers and sisters get loaded onto the death train and then I was alone. We didn't have time for costumes." she spit out. One of the little ones leaned forward with wide eyes. "What was the death train?" she whispered. The woman twisted the handle of her mishloach manot as she explained to the children about the way the Jews were packed into small, dark trains like sardines, into a box with no air or light, no water or food for eight days straight. How they rode back and forth on the rails until the people died, and the people who were still alive were then thrown into a deep ditch and shot. The children wanted to know how people could do that to other people. One little boy said because there are some evil people in the world. Another girl, who usually spends her days bullying this same boy, squeezed a hand on his shoulder and said, well, don't worry you're safe here. Then we went around and discovered the rainbow of nations that were represented in that one living room: the woman was from Romania. I am from the United States. Their wonderful, beautiful, energetic madrichah is from Yemen. And the children are each from a different place--Ethiopia, India, Russia, Ukraine, France, and Japan. They all went around and said hello in their native language. The woman hugged each of us with tears in her eyes. "You are all wearing lovely costumes," she said as we left.

That day our mishloach manot cheered the lives of the old, alone, and sick in a poor, disheveled neighborhood block. But what it did for us and the children was so much more. There are many explanations about the significance of this Purim law. We give mutual gifts of food and drink in order to bring us closer to one another, to help the poor without making them feel embarrassed, and interestingly, in contrary to our normal interpretations of charity where the highest form is from an anonymous giver seeking no reward, the mitzvah of mishloach manot may only be fulfilled if the giver is known so that a bond of friendship may be formed. But I think that the children's mishloach manot went far deeper than that. They reminded them of what they have. They taught them what it means to give unto others, to listen and learn, to appreciate, be humble and thankful. At the end of the trip, I would have liked to be able to say that the children walked back hand in hand, laughing and sharing candies and smiling. Instead, they snapped back into their default modes of bickering and complaining, but when we got back and shared our experiences with the second group, I saw the joy of their experience swing around the circle once again.

We spent the rest of our day creating beautiful masks by layering pieces of wet plaster on one another's faces, working together and waiting for them to harden, peeling them off, then painting them in bright, dancing colors. In the spirit of Purim, we had masks to hide our faces to symbolize how God worked from behind the scenes to manifest the miracle of the Jew's survival on that day in the month of Adar. So we also wore masks to remember the inner workings and the beauty of the small miracles that can happen every day, especially watching a child experience the divine gift of giving.

Some pictures from my own Purim celebrating:
A puppet show on Ben Yehuda
Me and Orly with a wind-up doll

A real life talking flower!

The tree was very happy to be photographed

Fun in the sun at a street party

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