Celebrating Purim in a Pandemic

In Megillat Esther, we read of the joyous reaction of Jews after being saved from annihilation: feasting, sending gifts to family and friends, giving charity to the poor. In a “normal” year on Purim, we would emulate their joy on a grand scale — gathering in large numbers to hear the megillah read, with many decked out in costumes, celebrating at parties with drinks flowing, hand delivering gift baskets to friends, donating to those in need and gathering for meals with family and friends.

But in a pandemic, our celebrations will be much more circumspect given the limits on large public gatherings and social distancing. It’s also a poignant reminder of the one-year anniversary of Purim 2020, which for many of us marked the last time we came together in large numbers in synagogues. Shortly thereafter, so many communities were hard hit in the first wave of the coronavirus, suffering many deaths. The masks we donned to dress up for Purim would give way to masks that would protect our health and those around us.

This year, together with the presence of the pandemic, the joy we normally feel at Purim is impacted more by the underlying pathos in the megillah; we read that Jews still had to fight a war of self-defense. Although victorious in the end, they faced the trauma of near-genocide instigated by Haman’s slanderous words to the king: “There is a certain people who are scattered abroad and dispersed throughout your kingdom and provinces, their laws are different from those of any other people, and they disobey the king’s laws, and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” Similar invectives have been expressed by other anti-Semitic despots, ranging from Pharaoh to Hitler to Ayatollah Khamenei.

Beneath all the Purim frivolity, these words in the Megillah trigger a deep existential fear. Jews may be loyal citizens and well-entrenched in society, but can we ever let our guard down? Our faith in God goes hand-in hand-with continued vigilance as we see a rise in Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism abroad and within the United States. Our apprehension only increases when we witness someone storming the halls of the Capitol wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt or when elected officials invoke anti-Semitic drivel. The irony is also not lost when considering modern-day Persia, Iran, developing nuclear weapons directed to “Wipe out the State of Israel.”

Jews may be loyal citizens and well-entrenched in society, but can we ever let our guard down?

Where is the vaccine against this virus of anti-Semitism? Baseless hatred of the other? We can’t turn to the expertise of doctors and scientists to cure this malady but instead have to engage in intense educational efforts and alliances of political, religious, educational and community leaders and just ordinary folks. As with the battle against the coronavirus, we must work hard to stamp out a disease that spreads, especially in an era of social media, like wildfire.

As we process these feelings of vulnerability, though, we also face the unimaginable losses from the pandemic that have left all of us reeling. Coupled with that is the often “invisible” emotional toll on those living alone, especially the elderly, and the negative impact on dating, fertility treatments, working parents and children, especially with school closures and severe economic distress.

But the long arc of Jewish history teaches us to follow what Rebbe Nachman of Breslov urged his Hasidim. Jews, never despair, never give up hope! Despite everything, things can go from the very worst to the very best in the blink of an eye.

We have seen and continue to see the very worst from this pandemic. We will always remember the losses and the sacrifices of this time. But hopefully now, with the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines, the severe threats to our health — both physical and mental — and our general wellbeing will begin to dissipate. As the vaccine becomes more widely available, we can begin to look forward to the time when our lives will take on more of a sense of normalcy. Being able to host guests for Shabbat and socialize with friends and relatives outside of our “pods.” Shul services resuming (and don’t forget the kiddush!) and public life cycle events without limits on attendees. And, of course, schools and businesses being fully operational.

For now, though, I am anticipating, b’ezrat Hashem, the simple pleasure of gathering with my immediate family at our Purim feast, with Reb Nachman’s words of “it’s a mitzvah to always be happy” pulsing through my very being. We will raise our glasses, grateful to God for having reached this moment, utter a blessing over our wine and a hope for good physical, emotional and economic health for all, with a toast of “L’Chaim,” To Life!

Rabbanit Adena Berkowitz, a practicing therapist, is Scholar in Residence at Kol HaNeshamah NYC and Senior Educator at the Manhattan Jewish Experience. She is the author of The Jewish Journey Haggadah.


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