Tonight is the start of the Jewish festival of Purim, a festival of joy that offers us the exact lesson we need in today’s climate of uncertainty and chaos.
What is Purim?
First, a quick primer: Purim is a one-day holiday that fits into the theme of “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” In this case, the plot to kill the Jews was created by Haman, one of the viceroys of the King of ancient Persia. The plot was foiled thanks to the wits and intuition of Queen Esther, a Jewish woman who was selected as the new Queen after the King had his first wife killed.
Fun fact: Purim is the only Jewish holiday in which the central figure is a woman. And, unlike most biblical women, Queen Esther is not a woman who gave birth to the hero of the story. Queen Esther is a heroine for all women, especially those of us who didn’t earn our stripes by birthing a child.
In terms of celebration, Purim is all about the joy. This is a holiday with few, if any, prohibitions and lots of permissions. The atmosphere is one of carnival and revelry. Imagine a mix of Halloween and Mardi Gras.
Children, and many adults, dress in costume, and engage in a kind of “reverse” trick-or-treating in which we deliver treats to others and give money to the poor. We gather in community to read the Megillah of Esther — the book of Esther. Rather than a solemn, sit-in-your-seat-and-be-quiet reading, this is a raucous event. Each time the name of Haman is read, everyone shouts and makes noise to drown it out.
Of course, the holiday entails a big feast, and a lot of drinking.
Why So Much Joy?
The question around Purim is: why so much joy?
Purim celebrates that the edict against the Jews was lifted. But, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks observes, it seems that this would be more about relief than about joy. In addition, although there’s a “happy ending,” in that the Jews escaped the edict of death, it’s also rife with uncertainty.
Joy Defeats Fear
I really love what Rabbi Sacks says about this. Rabbi Sacks writes
The Jewish response to trauma is counterintuitive and extraordinary. You defeat fear by joy. You conquer terror by collective celebration. You prepare a festive meal, invite guests, give gifts to friends. While the story is being told, you make a rumbustious noise as if not only to blot out the memory of Amalek [the lineage of the evil Haman], but to make a joke out of the whole episode. You wear masks. You drink a little too much. You make a Purim spiel.
Precisely because the threat was so serious, you refuse to be serious – and in that refusal you are doing something very serious indeed. You are denying your enemies a victory. You are declaring that you will not be intimidated. As the date of the scheduled destruction approaches, you surround yourself with the single most effective antidote to fear: joy in life itself. As the three-sentence summary of Jewish history puts it: “They tried to destroy us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Humour is the Jewish way of defeating hate. What you can laugh at, you cannot be held captive by.
Finding Joy in Tragedy
Rabbi Sacks shares that to work through a depression after the death of his father he wrote a book called Celebrating Life. I absolutely love this story he tells about the book and a response he received to it:
It was a cheer-you-up book, and it became a favourite of the Holocaust survivors. One of them, however, told me that a particular passage in the book was incorrect. Commenting on Roberto Begnini’s comedy about the Holocaust, Life is Beautiful, I had said that though I agreed with his thesis – a sense of humour keeps you sane – that was not enough in Auschwitz to keep you alive.
“On that, you are wrong,” the survivor said, and then told me his story. He had been in Auschwitz, and he soon realised that if he failed to keep his spirits up, he would die. So he made a pact with another young man, that they would both look out, each day, for some occurrence they found amusing. At the end of each day they would tell one another their story and they would laugh together. “That sense of humour saved my life,” he said. I stood corrected. He was right.
Humor kept this man alive through Auschwitz.
If they could get through Auschwitz by finding something to laugh about every day, surely we can find things in our lives to laugh about every day.
Purim in the Midst of Quarantine and Isolation
This is a beautiful lesson for any time, but especially for the time we are living through now. There is global chaos over the coronavirus epidemic. Cities and parts of countries are on lockdown. Financial markets are in turmoil, and in the US, we are 8 months away from an election.
Uncertainty has never felt more permanent than it does now. Everything is changing day to day, and nothing is predictable. Of course, this is always the case, but it feels more prevalent now. It’s impossible to escape this reality. And as humans, we don’t like uncertainty and chaos.
The reach of the coronavirus epidemic has hit close to home for me. The “New Rochelle cluster” in Westchester county impacted the lives of many of my friends and family. This is adjacent to the community where I grew up. The school where one of my nephews is in third grade was one of the first to close; as of today my nephews and nieces were all home thanks to school closings.
Purim carnivals at Westchester and city synagogues were cancelled. Many synagogues also cancelled Megillah services or offered livestream options for those who were quarantined. In a poorly-phrased headline, one news outlet reported that “Purim is Cancelled.” Not quite, but I’m sure that’s what it feels like to many of the kids who dressed in costume only to watch the Megillah reading over Zoom.
Purim, more than many holidays, is a holiday of communal celebration; unlike Passover, in which the main rituals are celebrated in the home around the Seder table, on Purim we celebrate in community, in public, shared spaces.
It feels antithetical to the holiday to have communal celebrations cancelled, even if it is for the larger goal of protecting the health and safety of the community.
The Lesson on Faith
Even when we don’t get what we want, we get what we need.
It may seem as if Purim is “ruined,” but perhaps in this Purim we can find one of the most crucial lessons of faith.
Purim is the holiday that tells us to celebrate and find joy even though the ending of the story wasn’t a permanent relief. The coronavirus is still in its early stages here, likely to spread further before it recedes.
So what happens when you can’t come together as a community in person, because community amplifies the threat?
This is the test of faith: to find joy even when things are changing, to find joy in the uncertainty. To find joy even in quarantine and isolation.
It’s easy to feel joy and faith in the face of overt miracles that show Divine power. Purim requires joy in the absence of such visible acts. This is the ultimate act of faith: to find joy when life itself feels precarious and uncertain.
This was the lesson that the Auschwitz survivor taught Rabbi Sacks: find the humor in the midst of the most difficult times. If they could do it in Auschwitz, surely we can do it in the midst of the coronavirus.
Look Forward to Look Back
In difficult times, I often recall one of my favorite things that I have learned from Tony Robbins:
Did you ever think, ‘in 10 years we’ll look back at this and laugh?’ well, my motto is, ’why wait?
There is always uncertainty around the corner. But there is also always joy to be found in the moment, wherever you are. When it’s hard to find, I like to play a little mind game: I refer to this moment as though it was in the past, and I complete this sentence:
Remember that time when…
So if you’re in quarantine, if you’re worried about the virus, if you’re freaking out about the stock market and the future, I invite you to find the joy and the humor in the moment.
Pause. Take a deep breath. And then ask:
What is funny about this?
What could be funny about this?
Or simply tell a funny story: Remember that time when the coronavirus epidemic happened and we had to quarantine…
And also remember: just as joy defeats hate and anger, laughter is truly the best medicine.