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How a Purim Treat Turned Into a Purim Chore—and Finally a Source of Joy

We publish a comic holiday newsletter for our friends. Recently it started to feel like work, until I learned the meaning of ‘mitzvah.’

Rebecca Klempner
March 11, 2014
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock

Every Purim, my husband and I give out mishloach manot, traditional gifts of food to friends and neighbors. But more than a bottle of wine or a packet of Bissli, our neighbors seem to enjoy the humorous Purim newsletter we’ve included for the past six years. The jokes vary: Some reference questionable local customs (like rolling through the nearly back-to-back stop signs in residential Beverly Hills), others spin current events (clarifying that Matisyahu the musician had shaved his beard, not Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon), while still others contain irreverent puns based on obscure bits of Hebrew vocabulary or Jewish law (like changing Shir HaMaalot, a “song of the steps,” to Shmear HaMaalot, a cream cheese that’s a step above the rest).

Planning the newsletter takes months. As early as the day after Purim, my husband might pull me aside to propose something for the following year’s edition: “Wissotzky Teas of Israel, Presenting our new line of limited-edition Chai teas: Am Yisrael Chai, Od Avinu Chai, and Od Yosef Chai.” Or “Need to get away for Passover but can’t afford luxury? Try Frugal Feiga’s Pesach Getaway … No private rooms. All matzos machine-made. Tea room contains only tea & is open from 6 to 10 a.m. … ”

If my husband’s joke shows promise, I’ll tell him, “Put it in the file.” Other relatives may add their own contributions, which we also stash in “the file.” When Purim approaches, I open the folder and start weaving the jokes into fake “news” and “advertisements.”

As we polish the material into a final draft, my husband and I giggle ourselves silly late into the night while our kids sleep in their beds. It’s as much fun as a date but doesn’t require a babysitter. Or it was as much fun, until last year.

The previous September, my youngest child had started school. It was just for a half-day, but it allowed my previously sporadic writing to become more consistent. While my daughter joined the other preschoolers on the playground or dragged her pinkies through fingerpaint, I typed draft after draft of short stories, submitted pitches, and chatted up potential clients. My efforts paid off. Whenever one of my stories was published, I felt pleasure and gratitude that finally God had allowed my hobby to become my profession.

But writing also became work. I had deadlines to meet and editors to please. If I didn’t succeed, I knew my newfound writing opportunities would dry up, so I typed away every weekday morning, and usually a few evenings, too, once the kids went to bed.

Then, Tu B’Shevat rolled around. Traditionally, that’s when my husband and I start the first draft of the Klempner family Purim newsletter. But last year, I made one excuse after another, telling myself, “I’m busy now. I’ll do it later.” Forced to be honest with myself, I finally admitted that creating the newsletter had become just another chore on my to-do list.

Even though I wasn’t yet fully observant as a child, I grew up celebrating Purim, the holiday that commemorates reversals of fortune and the hidden hand of God. It’s considered the happiest day of the Jewish year, and a topsy-turvy one, when kids hide behind masks, irreverent jokes are condoned, and normally sober rabbis drink themselves under the table.

And yet, when I became Orthodox as an adult, I noticed something odd. There are more mitzvot unique to this rabbinic holiday than to some holidays that come from the Torah, such as Shavuot or Rosh Hashanah. And each mitzvah has a slew of rules associated with it. Wouldn’t all those obligations weigh down our high spirits on Purim?

In a non-Orthodox context, mitzvah is generally considered synonymous with “good deed.” As I became increasingly observant, I learned that mitzvah is more accurately translated as “commandment.” When I asked around about the discrepancy, someone pointed out that following “commandments” can feel like letting God boss you around—leaving you to be the lowly servant. On the other hand, a “good deed” sounds like an opportunity to do God a favor (so to speak). Apparently, many Jews prefer to think of God as a buddy, not as a king.

Accepting the obligations of the Torah’s mitzvot meant that I had to do what God expected of me, whether I wanted to or not. That meant keeping kosher at family parties where my formerly favorite foods were served, missing work on religious holidays even if I didn’t get paid, and so on.

When I asked my teachers how to do this without feeling put-upon, they had this explanation: The Gemara relates the Hebrew word mitzvah to the Aramaic word tzavta, which means “to join in companionship.” God wants a relationship with the Jewish people, and so he gave us mitzvot as an opportunity to connect with him. Just as a human being might offer her beloved a bouquet of flowers, a favorite food, or a warm pair of mittens as an expression of love and connection, we can offer God—who doesn’t need anything from us at all—a token of our affection: a completed mitzvah.

The Alei Shur, a contemporary work of mussar by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, explains that simcha, happiness, is also about connecting to others. Thus, it makes sense that that happiest day of the year should contain so many mitzvot. Not only do they connect us with God, but these specific ones connect us to other people: listening to the megillah with the congregation, giving donations to the poor, sending gifts of food to friends, and throwing a wine-filled feast. Purim is a day of happiness not because of the drinking, the singing, or the jokes, but because of the spirit of giving—of connecting—that permeates the day.

There’s an idea in Jewish law of an involuntary neder—an action you repeat three times may become an obligation even if you did not intend to take a vow. Had our newsletter become an obligation? It felt like it had.

My husband and I hadn’t planned our newsletter to be an annual tradition. It had started off quite simply: We’d seen a similar one at somebody’s house.

“We can do better than that!” my husband had said. I’d agreed, and we debuted our own the following year.

The day after we handed out that first edition, we received phone calls from neighbors (“That joke you made about all the Passover hechshers on random things—so funny! And so true!”) and were stopped in the street (“I loved the newsletter! Couldn’t stop laughing!”). Everyone told us, “You have to do it again next year!”

And I did it again, happily, until last year. Knowing that other people expected the newsletter to appear on Purim forced me to confront my distaste for the task at hand. Knowing my husband and kids would be disappointed if I didn’t crank the newsletter out kept my tush in the chair in front of my keyboard. But I worked with a groan.

Then, about a week before Purim, I realized that this was my chance to connect with the members of our community and bring them laughter. It transformed my resistance into pleasure. When I recalled all the happy hours spent working together with my husband on this project over the years, I smiled to myself. Focusing on giving out of love as much as obligation brought meaning to our little newsletter, just as it brings meaning to mitzvot.

The words started to fly. I’d tapped into the simcha of Purim just in the nick of time.

Last month, my husband confessed that he wanted to change up our newsletter: Could we make a website instead, or do a page of just ads?

I led him to the computer, opened a document, and pointed. Having learned my lesson last year, I’d already started this Purim’s edition.

Next year—who knows?—maybe we’ll create that website. Better yet, we might write an old-fashioned purimspiel and invite our friends and neighbors to participate. I can hardly think of a better way to connect—with them and with simcha.

Rebecca Klempner is a wife, mother, and writer in Los Angeles.