Those below a certain age do not remember a time like this—when there was no anti-vax movement because the fear of disease was so much greater than the fear of a possible adverse reaction; a time when the only recourse in the face of illness was to quarantine oneself or flee.
In 1556, while the bubonic plague raged through Europe, Rabbi Moses Isserles (famed commentator on the Code of Jewish Law, Shulchan Aruch) was forced to flee his native hometown of Cracow in the hope of outrunning the deadly scourge. And so, on Purim, he found himself a homeless refugee in Siedlce, with barely the food and water needed to subsist—certainly no delicious cooked meal with which to celebrate the joyous day. That left him to feast the only way he could: by penning a brilliant commentary on the Megillah as an allegory for the life journey of the soul. This gem of a book still resonates today; its insights still inspire; its originality still offers us rare delight.
As we approach Purim this year, and each day brings news of additional outbreaks and more cancellations of public events, it is easy to feel that the carefree spirit of the day has been ruined. Some people who have been exposed to the virus will be under house quarantine; those who are older or immuno-compromised may make the decision to self-quarantine and keep away from public places.
It is at times like this that we do well to remember that while we often think of Purim as simply a day of fun and revelry, in fact, as Judaism codifies it, it is a day of joy. This is reflected in the mitzvahs of the day: listening to the Megillah and remembering the miracle of our salvation, eating a festive meal, sending gifts of prepared food to our friends and neighbors, and giving monetary gifts to the poor. The latter two mitzvahs are meant to ensure that no Jew lacks the resources or the means to join the celebration, because we can only fully feel the joy of the day when others do too.
This year, then, is an opportunity for all of us to focus less on the Purim “shtick” and more on the essence of a day: a time for us to demonstrate essential connectedness and caring for one another, and to feel the joy that comes from being part of the Jewish people, united in our essence.
Don’t let the people sitting out the public gatherings miss out on the joyous unity of Purim.
Think: who do you know that could use the visit of a friend (with appropriate precautionary measures taken of course)? Who would appreciate you sending over some food from our Purim feast? If you can read the megillah, who can you visit in their home so they can have the opportunity to hear the Purim story?
Parties and programs are fun, but Purim in the age of the Coronavirus reminds us that true joy and happiness come when we come together with kindness, caring,love, and inspiration.
Wishing you a very happy Purim.