Purim was only a week ago.
You don’t believe me, do you? I’m not surprised. It hardly seems possible.
Purim here in Kemp Mill, Maryland, a suburban Silver Spring neighborhood just outside of Washington, DC, was unremarkable. Shul was packed for the Megillah reading and other festivities. Communal meals were held. People dressed up, danced through the streets, and delivered mishloach manot.
True, there was the notice pasted across the front door of the shul, “ve-nishmartem me’od le-nafshoteikhem” – “take good care of yourselves!” (Deuteronomy 4:15) – don’t come to pray when feeling sick. People whispered about the coronavirus in private. Most weren’t shaking hands. Employers began to consider sending employees home to telework. Yet Kemp Mill was not New Rochelle, New York, where the Megillah had to be chanted through open windows for those in quarantine. Purim here seemed almost normal.
Now, a week later, nothing is normal. Synagogues are shuttered. Day schools are cancelled. As the world around us grinds to a halt, we click, we scroll, we refresh. We stare at our screens, anxious for the latest updates. Parents try to figure out how to be homeschoolers and productive employees at the same time. And there is no telling when any of this will end. When we are honest with ourselves, we know it won’t be anytime soon.
Purim was an oasis, and perhaps it had no right to be one. Maybe we should have cancelled it. In hindsight it is fair wonder why we reveled on the edge of a pandemic. Yet I wouldn’t be so quick to lay blame. We are inexperienced. Once upon a time, Jewish communities were intimately familiar with plague. Yet we have sheltered behind the shield of modernity for so long that we thought it could never happen to us. We are like the Jews of Shushan, complacent and unprepared for Haman’s decree.
And here’s the irony: isn’t Purim supposed to be the holiday when bad decrees are turned around? When Haman’s letters of destruction became known, the Megillah says, “ve-hair shushan navokhah” – “the city of Shushan was in a state of confusion” (Esther 3:15). But by the end of the tale, we instead hear, “ve-hair shushan tzahalah ve-samechah” – “Shushan was full of shouting and gladness” (8:15). Purim’s mantra of ve-nahofokh hu—complete reversal, where bad becomes good—has itself been rapidly reversed. This year, it’s as if we read the beginning of the Megillah but couldn’t make it to the end.
Ve-nahafokh hu. If it could come to disarray this quickly, can we emerge on the other side just as swiftly? It’s not worth dwelling on the question, for we have work to do instead. We must follow the advice of experts and take extreme social distancing measures. We ought to learn Torah and do mitzvot in the safety of our homes only. But let’s also connect virtually to ensure that no one falls through the cracks. And let’s pray that it all turns around again.