Purim, and before it “Shabbat Zachor” and the Fast of Esther, are particular times of community for us as Jews. The specter of so many now being forced away from community reminds us of its immeasurable importance – and not to take it for granted.
Especially in our age of social media and smartphones – when new generations’ definition of “social” is nothing like that of predecessors, and many of us are less than present even when we are physically present – we’re reminded that while we can sometimes call in for meetings, we never should “phone it in” when it comes to the many relationships that give life its very value. Our tradition has much to say, and to model, about the implications of excessive separation, of aloneness. While the Bible describes the Jewish people as am l’vadad yishkon – a nation that in some respects will “dwell apart” – we’re also told lo tov heyot ha’adam l’vado, that it is not good for people to be alone. Estrangement from the community, even if temporary, is considered a substantial hardship, and we’re taught, of course, that the very essence of Torah is v’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha, to actually love our neighbor as ourselves. We’re a social people, a social community, and a social, interconnected species. Isolation – social distancing, quarantine – is not a natural, let alone optimal, condition.
For those of us involved in cultivating our community’s ties to others, Purim is a particularly relevant holiday. On the one hand, it highlights the theme of external enemies committed to our harm and negation. But it’s also about more complex relationships – for this, look no further than the Persian King Ahaseurus – as well as outright allies; unlike so much of the scriptures, the Book of Esther involves critically navigating intergroup engagement – maintaining identity and values, while engaging with others – in the context of exile.
Beyond the particular Jewish crisis of Purim – though it arguably reflects a broader human susceptibility to bigotry – a more “general” emergency, especially an epidemic or pandemic like the coronavirus outbreak, underlines our common humanity. The current reality – with its alarming specter of infections in China and the United States, in Iran and in Israel – brings home the point not only that challenges like diseases don’t discriminate, but that we’re all united in our basic similarity, in our vulnerability and in our need to combine efforts to tackle these adversities, out of decency but also a fundamental self-interest that are ultimately one and the same. Such cooperation in harsh circumstances can be not merely the most effective approach, but the only effective approach.
During a trying period like this, we find one more critical takeaway in Purim: hope. Our sages tell us that though the Book of Esther is remarkable in the absence, explicitly at least, of God in its text, it is this same book, with its account of salvation against the seeming odds, that will uniquely be preserved in the Jewish canon, forever. Reflecting all that we’ve overcome in our history, Purim points to the promise of v’nahafoch hu – of times of anxiety and difficulty giving way to better ones. As the megillah says, neh’pach la’hem miyagon l’simcha, u’me’evel l’yom tov. Its story is one of grief transformed into joy, mourning into a time of festivity.
Ken tih’yeh lanu – so may it be for us all.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
B'nai B'rith International has widely respected experts in the fields of: