Coronavirus: Celebrating Purim in an upside-down world - opinion

We may not imbibe as much wine this year, but we may finally imbibe the true meaning of Purim.

ISRAELIS SHOP for Purim costumes at a toy store in Kiryat Ekron, ahead of Purim, last week. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
ISRAELIS SHOP for Purim costumes at a toy store in Kiryat Ekron, ahead of Purim, last week.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
 This year the holiday of Purim will look very different. Children will still be in costume, and some revelers will celebrate to excess, but the celebrations will be modified, smaller. Communal reading of the megillah will be limited by the guidelines of the Health Ministry, and celebrations and meals will be subject to the current restrictions.
For some, Purim this year may feel anticlimactic, subdued. My students already expressed concern that Purim this year will be a downer. They asked, “How can we celebrate Purim this year when our whole world has been turned upside down?”
I responded that this may be the first real Purim many of us have ever experienced. We may not imbibe as much wine this year, but we may finally imbibe the true meaning of Purim.
Purim celebrates a miraculous salvation that took place over two thousand years ago in the great Persian Empire. But its message is as relevant today as ever.
Purim literally means a lottery – a reference to the lot that the wicked Haman drew. The name of the holiday itself implies fate and chance, the roll of the dice, the luck of the draw.
At first glance, the story of Purim appears to be a series of strange coincidences strung together. The carefully woven fabric of the narrative is written like a great piece of classical literature, with heroes and villains, high drama and suspense, climax and denouement. The plot thickens with all of its twists and turns. But behind this storybook drama lies something profound.
According to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the lessons of the Purim story is that man is vulnerable. One minute everything is fine – the Jewish community lives comfortably, in safety and security – and then suddenly, without warning, the Jewish people across the entire Persian Empire is confronted with the threat of destruction, a “Final Solution.”
Esther is one of the books of the Bible, but God’s name is not mentioned, not even once. According to our tradition, He is in hiding. The Talmud (Hullin 139b) asks, “Where is [there an allusion to] Esther in the Torah? ‘And I will surely hide My face from you.’” The Talmud cites a verse that speaks of hester panim, God seemingly hiding His face amid suffering.
And yet, there is a tradition that in the Book of Esther, “the King” is an allusion to God, the King of kings. On Purim, we are challenged to see God – the King – in the narrative. He appears to be hidden, but in reality He is pulling the strings behind the curtain.
The name of the book itself – Megillat Esther – can be understood to mean “revealing the hidden.”
But it’s not enough to see God in the Purim story. We are challenged to see God in the story of our lives, in our trials and tribulations, the vicissitudes of life, the ups and downs. We are even challenged to see God’s hand in tragedy and in history as it unfolds before our eyes; in our personal lives and in our national life.
THIS PURIM marks one year since we became aware of the severity and the unfolding tragedy of the pandemic. One year ago – almost overnight – our world was turned upside down. Suddenly, everything changed. It’s been one year behind masks, isolated and alienated. And one full year of uncertainty, feeling vulnerable, with things out of our control.
But Purim is a topsy-turvy day when everything is upside down. It’s a day when we recognize that we are indeed vulnerable, and that what appears to be within our control is only an illusion. We wear masks to remind us that to truly see is to peel back the layers of perception. We drink in excess to access a deeper reality, one beyond logic or reason. We recognize that redemption can come in places we least expect it, and that the plans and schemes of our enemies can be foiled just as quickly as they were hatched.
Being human, we are limited in our ability to understand. Tragic events seem senseless, without rhyme or reason. World events can be confusing, with the future uncertain. On Purim, we recognize that God’s hand is guiding it all. The “King” is working behind the scenes, pulling the strings.
We may not understand all of the twists and turns of the plot, but we know the “Author.” And all we have to do is put our trust in Him.
The author lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as rabbi of Har Nof’s Kehilat Zichron Yosef.