Facing Uncertainty: Four Lessons from Purim for Our Unprecedented Times

As I dropped my children off at school this week, we were greeted by a line of administrators, reminding us to use the newly installed hand sanitizers at the door. Sanitization was a requisite for entry. No squirt, no school.

Coronavirus is now a part of our every day, and as we scramble to do all we can to prevent its transmission—as we wash and Purell and disinfect and wash again– we know, ultimately, that we cannot unwrite what has already been written, nor can we change what has already transpired. For many of us, that reality lies at the core of our anguish.

As Journalist KJ Dell’Antonia, who was quarantined in China during the swine flu epidemic, writes: “It’s the fear that I remember most vividly. It wasn’t just that I didn’t understand what we were supposed to do; it was that I didn’t know what was going to happen.”[1]  The uncertainty surrounding coronavirus, the not knowing what tomorrow (or even today) will bring, is the ammunition that fuels our fears.

And yet, as Jews we’re not unfamiliar with fear or uncertainty. God knows, we have faced our share of existential danger. Uncertainty reverberates throughout our past, echoing loudly in the words and stories of our tradition.  We can hear that echo in the verses of Megillat Esther, the script of our Purim holiday. In short, the Book of Esther tells the story of the imperiled Jewish community in ancient Persia, and the brave Queen Esther who saves them from extermination. Though Purim is best known for its ribaldry, the underlying tale speaks to all our fears in the face of grave uncertainty. As we struggle with this current epidemic, Purim offers us a dose of comfort and courage to carry with us through these trying days. Today, we lean into the wisdom of Purim, to distill four guideposts for our uncertain times:

The first and perhaps most radical Purim lesson is that, even in our darkest hours, we must excavate moments of joy from our lives and our tradition. On Purim, our rally cry is heard in the echoes of our joy. We shake our groggers and holler because, most improbably, we survived this attempt, and many others, at our destruction. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches: “The Jewish response to trauma is counterintuitive and extraordinary. You defeat fear by joy.”[2] In this moment of communal anxiety, what would it mean to combat our fears with joy?

Jewish tradition teaches, in darkness, we must reach for moments of light, but so too, we must reach for each other. Purim’s second guidepost demands that we care for our community in both prosperity and peril. When Esther decides to speak to the King, she beseeches her community to fast on her behalf, in a demonstration of solidarity and support. When we celebrate Purim, we mirror this message of support by sending mishloach manot, gift bags to friends and family. These tokens might seem like trivial gestures, but they reflect a vital sense of love and care within a community.

Whether we send gifts this Purim is not the point. The point for today is that we share in the obligation to reach out to one another, to let our friends and neighbors know we are thinking of them, that we care for them. As more people stay at home, in quarantine or simply out of caution, we face yet another pernicious threat: the threat of loneliness and isolation. Purim reminds us of our responsibility to pick up the phone, to offer words of empathy and support, and to share in this experience together, if not physically then emotionally. Now is not the time to separate from our communities. In this most challenging hour, we must do all we can to connect to one other and be available for each other.

But this availability extends beyond our friends and family and leads us to our third lesson of Purim: That is, we must offer support beyond our circle, to those most in need. On this holiday, we are commanded to extend ourselves to those on the margins, those most vulnerable among us: the impoverished, the ill, the homeless and the hungry, to ensure that everyone, no matter their circumstance, can participate in the Purim feast.

Today, we must interpret this mitzvah yet another way, and that is to recognize, in the panic surrounding coronavirus, far too many individuals feel unfairly targeted and victimized. Coronavirus does not discriminate by race or gender or nationality; all of us are equally susceptible to its venom. No person or community should be subject to hatred, bigotry or violence as a result of the fear and ignorance surrounding this disease. As Jews, we know what it is to be a people beleaguered, a people unjustly marked, and we cannot stand by while our neighbors bleed; we cannot stay silent.

Esther could have stayed silent. She didn’t have to reveal her Jewish identity or prevail upon the King to save the Jews. But even as she feared for her life, she pressed on, demonstrating unfathomable courage in the face of personal jeopardy. Her heroic exploits frame our final Purim teaching: and that is, fear is often the foundation of courage, the seed that allows courage to blossom and grow.

At this unprecedented moment, our society is soaked with fear, fear of the unknown, fear of the future, and fear of our own fragile mortality. But, that being said, there are infinite acts of courage emanating from our midst every day: from the doctors and health care workers on the front lines of this illness, to the teachers continuing to show up at school each day, to the bus drivers and subway conductors, the business proprietors and grocery store clerks, keeping our cities abuzz and afloat; let us not underestimate these acts of courage.

And even as we remain fearful, let us recognize our courage as too: to face another day of uncertainty, to gauge our health with honesty, to call our doctors when we feel concerned, to model strength for families, to take our children to school, to go to work, to gather in community, to stay at home. What might courage look like in the age of coronavirus? It does not necessarily look like Esther. Rather, it looks like each of us.

On this Purim day, as we wash our hands and sanitize our phones, bump our elbows and disinfect with reckless abandon, may the wisdom of our Tradition and the wonder of Purim shift our perspective, even if just momentarily. May we find some semblance of relief in the unambiguous joy of the day, some purpose in the commandments to reach out and lift up those in our midst, and some inspiration in the moments where courage emerges out of fear. And may we be ever mindful that we are in this together, now, as we always have been, to shelter one another, to lean on each other, to laugh with one another and to cry together as well.

Chag Purim Sameach, best wishes for a healthy, joyous Purim.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/03/opinion/coronavirus-quarantine.html?referringSource=articleShare

[2] http://rabbisacks.org/therapeutic-joy-purim-purim-5775/

About the Author
Sara Sapadin is a rabbi and mother of four. Ordained by HUC-JIR, Sara currently serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City as an Adjunct Rabbi. Sara has written for a number of Jewish publications and is also a proud contributor to The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate (CCAR Press).
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