I just love it when traditions overlap. I learned recently that there is a Filipino custom to send gift boxes from family members overseas back home to the Philippines. These boxes are called Balikbayan Boxes. This tradition originated in the 1980s when Filipino young people were encouraged to leave their home country in order to work abroad and send money home to their families. It was a unique economic strategy – instead of building the economy at home in the Philippines, the government decided that the best way to grow their economy was to export their people as workers to other countries.
As a bonus, these overseas workers were allowed to send gifts home to their families without taxes or expensive mailing fees. These gifts become an important way for family members to stay in touch and share life over a long period of time. And Balikbayan Boxes were an important statement from the government that these workers were still part of their home communities. Their sacrifice of living overseas, away from their families was rewarded, partially, by the practice of sending Balikbayan Boxes.
When I heard about this tradition, it reminded me of our Jewish tradition to send Purim boxes. We actually have two kinds of gifts we send at this time of year: Mishloah Manot – gifts of sweet and wine in honor of Purim, and Matanot L’evyonim – gifts to the poor. The purpose of these Mishloah Manot, very much like the Balikbayan Boxes, is to connect families and to share traditions through the seasons and years. The purpose of Matanot L’evyonim – is to incorporate tzedakah in the Purim rituals to ensure that the needy are not forgotten at holiday time.
What I appreciate most about both the Filipino and the Jewish tradition of boxes is that they encourage us to stay connected in whatever ways we can.
Imagine a young Filipino person taking a job in China or Israel or the US. There is culture shock and adjustment to a new job. And there is also loneliness. But if they can also know that they are helping support their families and they can see that help concretely in the boxes they send home, it’s likely some of that discomfort is diminished.
Our Purim boxes may seem less dramatic by comparison. A few hamentashen and some candy is not exactly a prime lifeline to a family. And yet … we can imagine times in Jewish history when a simple gift of sweets and wine might have been an important connection. Imagine Jews who travel for a living, or Jews in the military overseas, or Jews during wartime, or Jews who struggle financially – in any of those scenarios giving and receiving Purim boxes can be a meaningful connection.
Rabbi Amy Rader