In every celebration and holiday that we have, we take a moment or two to recognize, honor and remember anyone who isn’t with us, who doesn’t have the resources to celebrate like we do and of course, those who may have sacrificed their time, energy or lives for what we have today. Some of these moments are symbolic and some are tangible.
Symbolic moments provide us with authentic opportunities to teach history, context, where we came from and where we do, and perhaps do not, want to go. Tangible moments offer us chances to put our learning into action.
Symbolism feels right in religious practices. Memories. Routines. Traditions. But to be perfectly honest, I always dread adding the bitter to the sweet during holiday preparations and celebrations because that actually does not feel right to me. In my mind and heart, holidays are meant to be joyful, fun, loving time together. And not in any way…well, bitter.
But without context and without history, we lose meaning. We miss out on the why behind the what. And let’s just face it some, maybe even much, of our history is truly bitter. As a teacher who really, really values authentic meaning-making, I know that once we have learning we also have to have action. So this year at our house, Purim really was bittersweet. Let’s talk sweet first…
Mishloach Minot, “the sending of gifts” (food, what else?) is a favorite tradition at our house. My kids were oh-so-very proud of their MMs this year. And I’ll admit that I was, too. They were bright and colorful on the outside and warm and cozy on the inside. We filled our MMs simply with homemade hamentashen and hot chocolate packets. I’m not really sure what is cozier than that? And they’re completely kid-made. Except for the tissue paper. We tried. It didn’t work out. I don’t think I even need to explain why it didn’t work out. I’ll just say that it became a “for later” activity. For me.
Each of these projects felt like a holiday in our home. Our kids in the kitchen with flour, sugar, fruit filling, glitter glue, feathers and stickers. (Separate activities people. Separate activities.) The kitchen counter, the floor, the kids themselves and really, everything utterly covered with all of the aforesaid items. Heartfelt and stressful. Messy and sticky. Loud and giggly. To me, these all sound like absolutely perfect words to describe a family holiday. So many holiday memories are embedded in the kitchen. Sights. Sounds. Smells. I wouldn’t trade any of them. Except maybe the glitter glue that’s still stuck to our kitchen table (Sorry Honey). But maybe even that I’ll take, because it’s a part of our memory making. Mishloach Minot are a lovely act of the heart. No tears involved.
But we did indeed have tears during our Purim preparations this year. Shall we talk bitter?
In Judaism we believe in tzedakah. We give, donate and volunteer our time, energy and money to the needy. It’s not so much considered a good deed as it is a commandment. As in, we do it because it’s the right thing to do. When I was in college I worked at the Annual Fund, calling alumni and parents for donations. I remember one wife not letting me talk to her husband because she said, “he gives to everyone who asks because they’re hungry.” Then she added, “but I’m hungry, too!” And now I understand just how she felt! It does feel somewhat odd to donate to others when we ourselves might be struggling to make everything fit financially soundly for our own family.
Recently, I came across an explanation that redefined so very much for me, truly struck a chord and helped me to better understand this conundrum. Ask Moses explains,
Every Jewish soul is part of a mega-soul which includes the soul of all Jews of all times. We are all one. When someone throws a rock at your chest your hand automatically moves to protect the chest by intercepting the rock. Not because the hand is doing a “favor” to the chest, but because they are both part of one body. I am giving charity to the pauper because without him I am not complete. So too, when one Jew is in need the other Jews assists because they are both one.
What a paradigm shift in who we’re giving to and how we view ourselves and those around us. Redefining “us and them” and our relationship to each other changes the approach to giving. Talk about giving ourselves the gift of grounding context! At the very same time, talk about what a tremendous responsibility to take on! Perhaps a little too much for little hearts? I do want my kids to learn about this kind of tzedakah. Not necessarily “second nature giving,” as I always want my kids to think and to make choices of free will. I never want them to do anything only because it’s the way we’ve always done it. But I do believe in modeling what we think is important and letting our kids participate and try things out in the fullest way possible.
Matanot l’evyonim, “gifts to the needy” is what we wanted to make our kids more aware and more a part of this year. So friends, for Purim Jason and I helped our kids donate some toys. We built up this idea, the process, the thought, for quite awhile. We talked about how much we have. We discussed how joyful other children would be to get to play with some of their toys and indeed, we’d still have plenty. And we talked about it being the “right thing to do.” We didn’t go for the jugular with Barbies. Or Polly Pockets. Or princesses. We weren’t trying to torture them or anything. But we did want the kids to feel giving from their hearts and souls. So in order for it to be meaningful, we had to go beyond the Old McDonalds toys. We went for the lovies.
Soft. Squishy. Cuddly. Adorable. I know, how could we, right? As we’re all learning right now, three children do not actually need more than two baskets full of stuffed animals. But the initial discussion got a vehement no. The next time we brought “it” up, they made their stance clear with big shakes of their heads. And the third time they realized that we weren’t going to drop it, so they somewhat grudgingly agreed to try.
Giving does hurt a little bit. It might mean that I don’t eat that last hamentashen or buy that pretty picture frame right when I want to (which is um, now. Obviously). For my kids this year, it meant saying good bye to some lovies. It also meant knowing that someone else, somewhere, will have something cozy to play with and love courtesy of their very own kind hearts. And that warm and fuzzy feeling inside that comes from making someone else’s day brighter, that’s the kind of bittersweet that I can stand behind. Proudly.