Cutting-Edge Kindness


By Rabbi Dov Greenberg |  Photography by Vera Franceschi  |   Masks by 

One of the lovely traditions of Purim, which dates back to the time of Queen Esther, is to send mishloach manot, gifts of food to friends. Once upon a time, these gifts of food were cooked and prepared at home and delivered with the warmth of human contact. But recently, there’s been an explosion in what is now a mishloach manot industry.

Online, you can send Purim gifts to and from anywhere in the world. There are themed arrangements, sculpted chocolates, even Avatar shloach manot for your children’s friends. You name it; it’s out there.

The advancements in the Purim gift industry are part of a greater general progress in human ingenuity. Over the past century, civilization has witnessed extraordinary advances in science, technology, medicine, and communication. These occurred because people have made use of the full capacity of their imagination to solve problems that had previously been thought to be unsolvable. However, during that same period, there has not been a comparable advancement in altruism.
To be sure, in nations like America, traits of kindness and generosity continue to make an enormous impact, but it is still true that humanity’s collective increase in kindness has not nearly kept pace with our scientific progress. This is what is most needed today. Not just to use our ingenuity to create fancier shloach manot gifts, but to use our intelligence, creativity and good will to devise more innovative and resourceful ways to help others.

Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist, tells a story that happened when he was eight years old. His father was a gifted man who could read sixteen languages, a brilliant scholar who, because there was only one university in Israel at the time, never rose above the job of assistant librarian. Nevertheless, his father dedicated much of his spare time to writing a book. Eventually it was published. It was a literary study entitled The Novella in Hebrew Literature.

Excited at the book’s publication, Oz’s father would go each day to the local book store to see if any of the three copies on display had sold. For many days no copies sold. His father’s sorrow filled the apartment. Down the block lived Oz’s father’s friend. A novelist named Zarchi whose books sold well. Oz remembered how his father complained to Zarchi that while many readers snapped up the popular novels Zarchi wrote, scholarly books, such as the one he produced, were ignored. The days passed. No copies of his book were sold. Oz’s father no longer spoke about his disappointment. He was depressed.

But then, a couple of days later, Oz’s father came home in a wonderful mood announcing “They’re sold. They’ve all been sold. All in one day! My book sold out. Even better, the bookstore already ordered more copies.” Oz’s parents went out to celebrate and left young Amos at the Zarchi house. Oz spent the evening in Zarchi’s study. Then he suddenly noticed a little coffee table by the sofa and on it, four copies of his father’s book. Oz knew that his father gave one copy to Zarchi. He quickly realized what Zarchi had done. He himself had purchased the other three copies. Oz was eight years old but he writes that “I felt a rush of gratitude inside me that almost brought tears to my eyes.”

When Zarchi noticed that Oz had seen the books, he picked up the three copies and hid them in a drawer. Then he silently glanced at young Oz accepting him into his band of conspirators, and without saying one word, let Oz know he didn’t want anyone to know of this mitzvah. Oz did not tell a soul until after Zarchi and his father’s death. More than fifty years later, in his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz is still in awe of the depth of Zarchi’s kindness. He writes: “I count two or three writers among my best friends, friends who have been close to me and dear to me for decades, yet I am not certain that I could do for one of them what Zarchi did for my father. Who can say if such a generous ruse would have occurred to me? After all, he, like everyone else in those days, lived a hand-to-mouth existence, and the three copies of The Novella in Hebrew Literature must have cost him at least the price of some much-needed clothes.”

This story so beautifully illustrates how one can use imagination to find innovative ways to help others.

May the great advances in the mishloach manot industry remind us to keep pace, both personally and collectively, with increases in altruism. May we all find creative ways to foster love and friendship between each other.