It’s bizarre how last year’s Purim holiday and this year’s share a similar level of anxiety. Last year, many of us were nervous about the first signs of the COVID-19 virus. Who knew it would turn into the biggest public health crisis of our time?
This year, although a miracle vaccine is giving us hope, a level of anxiety remains: possibly dangerous variants, permanent damage to the economy, an uncertain, Zoom-obsessed future, continued restrictions, and so on.
These insecurities clash with the traditional “in your face” attitude we bring to holidays like Purim, which celebrate epic Jewish victories. These victory celebrations are usually one-dimensional: Our survival was threatened, and against all odds and with the help of miracles, we prevailed.
This core simplicity allows us to celebrate with abandon, without any reservation or ambivalence.
The pandemic, however, has thrown us off balance. Is it safe to go party at the synagogue and hear the Megillah? Will we be allowed to dance? Should we let the children go?
We’ve never had these insecurities. Throughout our lifetimes, especially in America, we’ve marched proudly into synagogues, worrying more about where we would sit than whether it’s safe to sit.
These unpleasant insecurities, however, carry hidden blessings. They serve as a cautionary tale against the simplified narrative of one-dimensional victories.
Purim serves as a cautionary tale against the simplified narrative of one-dimensional victories.
Victories, by their very nature, can arouse cockiness and complacency — a feeling of inevitable invincibility. When we teach biblical stories to our kids, it’s natural to highlight these victories and the heroic conclusion that Jews ultimately prevail. Holidays such as Purim and Chanukah turn epic victories into permanent icons of the Jewish experience.
But it’s easy to go overboard. This is particularly true at Purim, when a Talmudic edict calls on us to get so drunk that “one can’t tell the difference between ‘blessed be Mordecai’ or ‘cursed be Haman.’” Purim turns reality upside down. We wear costumes. We boo our foes. We pile on.
This past year, however, it is reality that has piled on, that has put its foot on our necks, that has isolated us and kept us from hugging our loved ones, that has turned our society and lives upside down.
Tonight, those of us who will walk into a socially-distanced space to hear the Megillah will likely experience a very different Purim — a Purim much more sober than the wild parties we are used to.
In that sobriety is a lesson in humility and a reaffirmation of our humanity. No matter how epic our victories, ancient or modern, we can never lose our appreciation for simple blessings, or let our guards down, or abuse the ritual of drinking alcohol or forget that even our foes are created in God’s image.
We’ve had two consecutive Purims to internalize these lessons. That is a spiritual victory for our time.