By Beth Huppin. Beth is the Director of JFS Project Kavod/Dignity, the Jewish education program at JFS. She has enjoyed teaching Judaics to children and adults of all ages in both formal and informal settings for over 30 years. She is the recipient of a 2010 National Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.
Last week, Jews celebrated the joyous holiday of Purim. In response to the growing threat of COVID-19 in Seattle, Purim observance happened in unprecedented ways. Gathering to celebrate wasn’t safe, and yet, as an ever-resilient people, we discovered new ways to be together.
The Purim story is complex and even comical in some places, telling a tale of the Jewish people overcoming a threat of physical annihilation. Traditionally, many focus on the humor in this potentially tragic story because, as we know, laughter is an important resiliency practice. In addition to using humor to relieve stress, what lessons might we learn from Purim during this challenging time?
For those who observe the holiday, there are four religious obligations related to Purim:
- Hearing the reading of the story of Esther – to be done in community
- Delivering gifts of food to friends (Mishloach Manot)
- Delivering gifts to people in need/charity (Matanot L’evyonim)
- Eating a festive meal with others
I’m struck by these four ritual responses to a story of near-physical destruction. Their message is clear: When in physical danger, we must connect with others in meaningful ways, not isolate ourselves or hide from others.
These four practices of human connection were particularly challenging this year. At many synagogues the festive gathering and community meals were cancelled out of concern for the health of the community. Reaching out to others with gifts of food or charity was difficult to do when asked to limit social contacts.
Preventing the spread of this virus requires us to do the opposite of physically connecting. Still, the message of Purim practices – that we need human connection – is crucial to our very survival and can be a lesson to help us through these times of social distancing.
On Purim day, I listened to a live-stream reading of the book of Esther on my computer. Seeing the faces of the readers, hearing their voices and watching others listening with joy, I felt less alone. One of the readers was a teen, herself in quarantine because of exposure at her school.
At JFS we often speak about helping others, but it is important we care for ourselves, too. Like this family, we can still reach out to one another via phone, email and face-to-face technology even during this time when we all may be more isolated than we like. We can find creative new ways to regularly check on each other, visit, and even study together.
We can also be the ones to ask for help and support. In the Purim story Esther is alone and facing great physical danger when asking the King to spare her people. But her fear and danger are lessened, and her mission ultimately successful, by asking for prayers and emotional support from Mordecai and her people.
The Purim obligation of giving to people in need reminds us that this is a good time to increase charitable donations when possible. The community faces new and increased needs caused by this virus. At JFS we depend on the generosity of donors to keep our doors open, especially with the cancelation of our Luncheon. The same is true for every organization on the front lines of caring for others.
Finally, through phone or email, let’s be quick to thank and acknowledge each other, especially people making difficult decisions about how to keep us safe. Let’s regularly thank those on the front lines of treating those who are ill. Acknowledge with gratitude those people who go to work every day despite the danger, making it possible for others to be home. Create neighborhood groups so that when someone shouldn’t go out for groceries or other necessities, others will know and those needing assistance won’t be ashamed to ask for help. Don’t wait for an official volunteer coordinator’s instruction. Just do it!
May we allow these ancient Purim messages to teach us to care for ourselves and to support each other in new ways. We are in this world together for a reason.