Of the four mitzvot designated for Purim, mishloach manot [sending gifts of food to friends] is a common favorite. You remember being a child and counting all the mishloach manot you had accumulated throughout Purim day and weighing the number on the "How-Cool-Are-You?" scale. For those who don't remember the scale, here's how you'd calculate: if you received over 10 mishloach manot, you were way popular. If you received just 10, you were average in terms of popularity, and if you only got five, or less…nebach [what a pity]. You really had to make some new friends.
The use of mishloach manot as a makeshift social barometer does not stop at the end of pre-teen and teenage adolescence but rather, extends into adulthood and family life. Instead it is not the test of how many mishloach manot one receives, but rather, how cute their theme is or extravagant their basket can be. I personally know of people who must think of a theme by Rosh Chodesh Shvat, six weeks in advance, so that they can start planning, and others who will not, chas v'shalom repeat a theme, and of course those who would never, ever bring themselves to send out cards instead and save themselves time and extraneous effort.
Every year my family gets a gift basket from my father's bosses in Brooklyn, and every year it is more and more extravagant. One year, we got a small wood and velvet couch upon which chocolates and wafers laid alongside (what else) a bottle of wine. The next year, an extremely large basket with dried fruits, nuts, cakes, chocolates and the ever-present wine. When we put that on the table next to one of the baskets that we send out it's not a shock that our basket looks more than a little nebach, and it makes us feel that way as well!
Mishnah Brurah quotes Maimonides, saying that we should spend more on matanot l'evyonim [charity or gifts of food to the needy], another of Purim's four mitzvot, than on our mishloach manot. Purim is a holiday where we were threatened as a people, and after we triumphed we came together as a nation. So it would make sense to display our gratitude of being spared as a nation with acts of chesed and tzedakah by helping out the less fortunate among us. Nowadays we have organizations that take care of the poor with soup kitchens, Yad Eliezer, etc., so giving charity hand-to-hand is less common than it used to be, but giving to those organizations still fulfills our obligation.
My rabbi, Rabbi Laurence Rothwachs of Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck actually requested that his congregation spend less money on their mishloach manot and was himself staunch in changing his family's habit – last year they gave out charity collection boxes with their simple food gift baskets and a poem about the importance of putting the mitzvah ofmatanot l'evyonim before that of mishloach manot.
Purim's "slogan," so to speak, is v'nahafoch hu, that our assumptions will manifest as their opposite. We should apply v'nahafoch hu to our perception on what's important about Purim and focus more on matanot l'evyonim than mishloach manot this year.
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