In March 1996, I was living in Jerusalem and lived through a wave of suicide bus bombings. It was terrifying, and I remember thinking that it would only be a matter of time before bombers would detonate their explosives in a market, a shopping mall, and other public places. Sure enough, a day or two later on the eve of Purim, a Hamas suicide bomber detonated a massive blast in Tel Aviv at the Dizengoff Center Mall, killing 13 and wounding more than 130 Israelis.
That night at the Megillah reading, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman reminded all of us that of all the mitzvot of Purim, hearing the Story of Esther was a commandment even in a house of mourning. I have been brought back to that moment this week as the images from the suicide attacks in Brussels, Ankara, and the Ivory Coast have filled my mind and heart.
It is hard to imagine engaging in raucous and irreverent celebration so soon after such terrible acts of terrorism and violence. But, of course, Purim has often seemed ill-timed, since the world is not yet what we would want it to be. Our private and public worlds collide in times like this, and yet Jews through the ages have been commanded to rejoice on Purim, even in the face of tragedy, because it is a reminder how precious and precarious life is, and how the world can be turned upside down without warning.
In an interesting parallel to the world of the Priests and the Tabernacle, we find in Parashat Tzav the instructions to Aaron and his sons involve both public and private ritual, in order to imbue the community with holiness. The priests were not to leave the Tabernacle for seven days following their ordination, to strengthen their connection with God. On the eighth day they were to rejoin the community and “teach the Israelites all the laws which God had imparted to them” (Lev. 10:11).
Similarly, turning inward in mourning and grief traditionally lasts the seven days of shiva before turning outward towards the world on the eighth day. Being part of mamlechet kohanim — a “kingdom of priests” – means that our connection to others must never be lost. We must employ our understanding of values and ethics to share with others in the quest to transform our world. Our pain, whether personal or communal, can serve to move us towards a world where there is far less suffering than we experience.
The sacrificial system of korbanot (from the root k-r-v) denotes closeness and intimacy through a system of visceral interactions and sacred meals geared towards the understanding that connecting more deeply with others is a way to encounter God. Rather than worry in isolation about acts committed and omitted, the individual could bring a symbol of contrition to the altar. Isolated, we can only see our deficiencies and suffering, getting closer to one another in communal solidarity makes the experience a shared one, even if painful.
Communal responses to catastrophe could yield a search for meaning amidst the madness, or a descent into the meaninglessness of the world through numbing agents of food and drink. This moment — both of the commemoration of Purim and our response to the tragedies of our day — calls upon us to lean into the pain and also to turn it on its head. Ultimately we are called upon to turn weeping into dancing, sorrow into joy, in the words of Megillat Esther (9:22), lifting our spirits in the face of profound vulnerability. Gifts to one another (mishloah manot) and offerings to the needy (matanot l’evyonim) expand our experience outward towards others.
Parashat Tzav and the holiday of Purim invite us to transform feelings into actions that bring wholeness and holiness. We must make up for the emptiness found in pain and suffering but connecting with the world and filling it with compassion and righteousness.
May the memories of the victims of terror be for a blessing, and may collective joy come in the morning.