A year ago on Purim it felt like the walls were closing in. We didn’t know enough about the Coronavirus but we knew it was spreading and it was only a matter of time before our community would be impacted. We made some quick choices about celebrating Purim at Wornick. We decided not to do a collective Megillah reading, instead opting for Rabbi Corey, Cantor Doron, and myself to walk around to each classroom to chant the Megillah (I’m not sure I even knew the difference between a droplet and an aerosol last March!). We chose to carefully administer the distribution of candy during our carnival and modified many of our games to meet a higher standard of hygiene. The day was still wonderful and joyous. I remember playing an amazing game of soccer on the field with 4th and 5th grade students and then I joined the 8th grade students at a local home for a holiday meal.
The night before, I was feeling pensive about going to synagogue to hear the Megillah being read. I was nervous about the possibility of someone in my community having COVID-19 (at the time, no-one was wearing masks or social distancing) but after my eldest daughter begged me to go to synagogue to see her friends in costume, I caved and decided to cautiously attend services. That night, my daughter spent the entire evening on the laps of two young Israeli volunteers who were living in our community as part of a pre-army service program. She loved those two volunteers with all of her heart and spent most Shabbat afternoons begging them to play with her. The next morning we found out that the Israeli government was patriating all non-essential foreign service people and the two teens went back to Israel with little opportunity to say goodbye to anyone in our community.
The day after Purim on March 11, it was clear that the situation was drastically escalating. Schools all over San Mateo County were announcing a shift to remote learning and guidance was changing rapidly from local and state health officials. The day after Purim, the Wornick administration debated what to do until late in the evening. Just after 8pm we made the difficult decision to announce a shift to remote learning at the end of the week. At the time, we weren’t sure if we were being overly cautious or if it was the right decision. Within 24 hours, the public school districts announced that they were shifting to remote learning as well and our country soon entered a nation wide lockdown.
It’s been almost a year since then and as we celebrate Purim again this year, I can’t help but reflect on the significance of this holiday and the milestone we are about to reach in the COVID-19 era.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement, told the following story in his explanation of the significance of Purim.
There was once a poor couple who lived in a modest home in a small village in Ukraine. It happened to be a certain fast day (10th of Tevet) that fell on the eve of Shabbat. As Shabbat approached the couple realized that they had no food to break the fast and to celebrate Shabbat. They searched their home and found a small piece of dry bread to make hamotzi over (the blessing over the bread). As they ate their dry bread and broke the fast, they looked at each other and said, ‘how unfortunate is our situation that we are completing the fast day on a dry piece of bread….. but at least we have the joy of Shabbat.” At that moment, the man who had a beautiful voice, began singing and the couple joined hands and started dancing and celebrating together. A day later as Shabbat finished, a terrible decree against the Jewish people befell the village. In that moment however, the souls of Mordechai and Esther (the heroes of the Purim story), entered the bodies of the poor old couple who were celebrating Shabbat in their home. The happiness and joy that their singing and dancing brought was so overwhelming that it annulled the terrible decree and redeemed the Jewish people once again.
The message that the Ba’al Shem Tov is trying to convey is clear. Happiness and joy can turn a terrible situation into a positive one. The essence of the holiday of Purim is that we celebrate and force ourselves to be happy as we commemorate the reversal of our fortune, when we went from pending destruction to joy and celebration.
I think about this fantastical story and the lessons of Purim as I reflect on the past year. There has been so much loss and tragedy. We can look at our lives, at our community, and at our world and we can see ourselves as the poor couple who completed their fast on a piece of dry bread. We can think about all of the experiences and trips we have had to give up and all of the holiday gatherings we have had to forego. We can think about the family we have not seen in months or years due to travel restrictions.
But at the same time, we can see ourselves as the old and poor couple who made the choice to be happy and redeem themselves. Here we are, in the month of Adar, when our Rabbis commanded us to be happy and expel sadness and anger from our lives as we prepare for the holiday of Purim.
Truly, there is much to be happy for. As we speak, an increasing number of Wornick educators are receiving their first dose of vaccinations (I got my first dose last week!). Even though our school doors have remained closed to parents and community members, we have been able to grow closer as a community by having parents, grandparents, and other friends of our school attend virtual Tefillah on a regular basis. We can be happy and celebrate the resilience and flexibility of our teachers and students who have learned to create powerful educational experiences.
Let’s use the power of our Jewish life cycle this Purim. Yes, just like Mordechai and Esther, it can feel like the walls are closing in. But, happiness is a powerful tool. Put on music in your homes and dance with your children in the kitchen in the lead up to Purim. Be a little “extra” with your costumes this year. Put on your own “shpiel” (Purim performance) in the living room. We can choose to be happy this Purim, we can choose to change our realities!