Purim Lessons During Challenging Times

Note: This blog post by Beth Huppin, Director of JFS Project Kavod/Dignity, was written before the coronavirus (COVID-19) caused cancelation of many Purim celebrations throughout Seattle and beyond. We acknowledge with sadness and concern that canceling Purim festivities creates its own unique emotional challenges.  These new challenges impact the entire community, including people who find Purim chaos difficult.  More thoughts on lessons we might learn from social isolation during Purim will be shared later this week. In the meantime, the message of this blog – that we need not struggle alone – remains relevant during these challenging times, and so we share it with you today, on Purim itself.

“Purim is not my holiday,” people often tell me. They explain that the excessive joy and chaos of Purim is jarring, leaving them feeling alone, especially when they carry an inner sense of personal pain.

Whether on Purim or at other times, we often look at others, see them celebrating, and assume they are doing well. We don’t see the underlying illness, fear, despair or heartbreak hidden beneath the surface. Many who appear “fine” are skillfully hiding behind a mask of normalcy.

Something similar is happening in the Purim story where every character is hiding in some way. Esther’s very name means “hidden” in Hebrew. Early in the story, the only character who doesn’t hide, Vashti, is banished for her honesty. It feels dangerous to be fully honest and Vashti’s fate is a reminder of that sad reality.

Hidden challenges take many forms. A job we thought would last forever ends. A marriage falls apart behind closed doors. A beloved family member or friend struggles with a mental health challenge. A death opens a deep and dark hole. A heart feels shattered with despair for reasons we don’t understand. Whatever the source, it isn’t easy to share deep pain. Intentionally or not, we become experts at hiding our heaviest burdens.

Purim chaos includes wearing costumes. These costumes provide an opportunity to acknowledge that at times we all wear masks to hide inner turmoil. Rabbi Ebn Leader offers a positive spin to this inner chaotic reality. He writes “Our masters have taught that within the boundaries of this world chaos (tohu) always precedes a new creation. The seed in the ground falls apart so that a new plant can grow; death creates a path for new life.”

Esther’s decision to come out of hiding saved the Jewish people and is a reminder that while there are times when hiding is necessary, there are other times when it is appropriate to risk the vulnerability of removing a mask. Esther also teaches us that we don’t need to take this risk alone.

Esther took her risk of vulnerability out of necessity, but not without the encouragement of Mordecai and not without asking for the help of her entire people through fasting and prayers. She went to the King physically alone, but fully aware that she had the solid support of her community.

JFS understands the legitimate need for people to wear masks. At the same time, we encourage people to ask for help when needed. Like Esther’s community, JFS is a source of support for those who are ready to step into the vulnerable place of removing a mask. During those challenging times, we provide skilled and caring support.

The Jewish calendar reminds us that if it is Purim, then Passover, the holiday of redemption, is only four weeks away.   Perhaps redemption and inner calm aren’t as distant as they seem. Of course, leaving Egypt is followed by forty challenging years in the desert, but that’s also part of reality. There is no magical moment when all is well forever after. Life is not lived in a simple straight line.

If the outer chaotic party of Purim or of life experiences at other times feel isolating and difficult because of the reality of your own inner chaos, you are not alone. Others also struggle. JFS acknowledges this and is available to help when you are ready. Visit our website for more information.

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.

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