With the Israeli government’s unprecedented action to cancel all types of gatherings, and local actions in various Jewish communities across America, we face a reality that many important aspects of Jewish life are substantially curtailed, from synagogue attendance, to life-cycle events, to school and Torah learning, to visiting the sick and the mourning, to any number of other features of our religious practice.
While this imposition to religious life can be frustrating, perhaps we can learn from an instance that, according to our tradition, the Pesach seder and first days of Yom Tov were essentially cancelled, and that this cancellation of one of our most fundamental rituals spurred the Jews’ salvation.
This story begins with Megillat Esther, when Haman cast lots in the month of Nisan, which determined that the war against the Jews would be waged 11-months later in the month of Adar. The megilla records that Haman sent letters throughout the kingdom to prepare its citizens for the upcoming battle. According to the midrash, these letters were sent out on the 13th of Nisan, just a day and a half before Pesach was meant to begin.
The megillah teaches that there was widespread sadness and grief over the impending doom. But one can also imagine many Jews felt angry—angry at Mordechai for bringing all of this upon them. Had he only not been so stubborn! Had he only acquiesced to Haman, none of this would be happening! Mordechai’s credibility as a leader must have been in question, as his judgement regarding balancing religious practice against political demands has led the Jewish people to the brink of extinction.
Consider what the mood must have that year as the letters signing off on the Jewish people’s destruction were sent out. A terrible decree had come out just before the holiday of redemption. Perhaps some interpreted this as a sign that they were being unscrupulous in their Passover observance 70 years after the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Maybe, just maybe, if the Jewish people celebrate Passover as they should, have the seder with matza and maror as they should, and are careful about the performance of this mitzvah of seder night, God will once again have mercy on the Jewish people and save them from this terrible decree!
That background makes the following series of events even more remarkable. Mordechai persuades Esther to approach Achashverosh unannounced, but she insists that she will only risk her life on condition that the Jewish people fast for three days, the 14th, 15th, and 16th of Nisan—Seder night and first days of Yom Tov. Mordechai did exactly that—he went to the Jewish community and instructed them all to fast for three days.
Of course, the Jews at the time probably thought that this fasting was in response to Haman’s letters. It it likely that Mordechai’s demand, to fast instead of fulfilling the mitzvah of eating matza, was met with some level of confusion. They had no idea that the reason for Mordechai’s demand was because Esther will be breaking protocol and going into Achashverosh uninvited. In fact, it was Mordechai himself who, in their eyes, caused the problems to begin with—now he is telling them without good reason that they need to forgo their seder, forgo celebrating the holiday of redemption as the Torah commands, and instead refrain from eating for 3 days! Why not wait to hold public fast days until after the holiday?
One wonders what the conversations were like in the homes of the Jewish people, whether to listen or not to listen. But as the ruling from the chacham went out, the Jewish people did as they were instructed, thus providing the merit for a reversal of their fortunes. The unity of the Jewish people listening to the religious leadership to temporarily forgo the seder, as fundamental to our religion as it is, is what ultimately saved Jewish continuity. Indeed, this act may be the source for the Rabbi’s teaching that at Purim there was a renewed commitment to the Torah akin to the revelation at Mount Sinai.
And so this year, as the cost of social distancing leads to a decline in our traditional practice, we can take solace knowing that shutting down religious activity has been a necessary, if rare step spanning thousands of years. And just as the Jews at that time spent the days in prayer, we too can spend our days doing what we are able, within the guidelines, to do productive things: help those in need, be compassionate and supportive toward our neighbors, and pray for the safety of our global community. And just as the Jews did at the time of Mordechai and Esther, may we all see God’s glorious salvation.