Purim in Quarantine

These past few weeks have been a harrowing and difficult time for the Jewish community at large, and particularly for select communities in New York that have been most affected by the Corona Virus outbreak. Aside from those individuals battling confirmed cases of the virus, the pandemonium and chaos surrounding the virus and the health department’s attempts to avoid a full-blown epidemic have landed hundreds of people in quarantine for up to fourteen days. At a time of year typically marked by merry-making, partying, and large gatherings of people overcome with joy and collective celebration, the requirement to isolate and separate ourselves from our fellow Jews, in fact from the world entirely, is in dire contrast to the usual state of affairs associated with Purim.

As Jews, we believe that no moment in life or in our collective history is coincidental. Despite the tremendous difficulty of the challenge facing us all this Purim, there is much to be gained from searching for and internalizing the meaning to be made from this ordeal.

As discussed previously, the nature of the fight between Haman and the Jews was grounded in the ongoing battle between Torah Judaism and the beliefs and values of Amalek, the nation from which Haman descended. As we read about this past week in Parshas Zachor, Amalek’s aim is always to infuse doubt and uncertainty into our hearts, to question God’s Divine Intervention, to despair of hope in times of ambiguity and fear. Current events worldwide and in the Jewish community leave daily life especially fraught with uncertainty and unpredictability. Of course, our ability to strengthen our trust in God and in each other is the ultimate weapon against the insidiousness of Amalek’s seed of doubt.

But there is another battle for which we find ourselves thrust onto the front lines.

When approaching Achashveirosh to get him on board with his plan to destroy the Jewish people, Haman describes the Jews as a nation, “mefuzar u’mifurad bein ha’amim,” - separate and spread out among the nations (Esther 3:8). In many ways, our separateness is what makes us unique and what fortifies us against our enemies. This is the beauty of Klal Yisrael: that we remain apart. At the same time, however, when scattered throughout the 127 provinces of Persia and Media, when spread out across so many lands and countries, when we find ourselves so distant spiritually, physically, and emotionally in the diaspora, our separateness can also stand against us.

The commentaries note that perhaps Haman’s indictment of the Jewish people provided a certain spiritual strength to his decree: due to our separation and distance from each other as a nation, we lost the strength of the unique Areivus, connectivity, that so often stands to protect us from our enemies. In light of this, it is remarkably fitting that,when Esther prepares to go before Achashveirosh, she serves up the unique and critical Tikkun for this momentary flaw by asking Mordechai to command all the Jews to unite together in fasting and prayer. While the merit of the Jews’ fasting and Tefilos certainly stood in good stead, perhaps it was actually our reunification that ultimately earned us such an incredible salvation.

The power of Amalek, of uncertainty and doubt, is that it can foster an “every man for himself” mentality. In times of chaos and fear, particularly when we are being mandated to separate ourselves from one another, it is even more difficult to battle Haman’s description of us as separate and spread out - never has such a description seemed to fit more aptly as we find ourselves purposefully withdrawing and isolating from each other. And yet, these weeks have also seen incredible demonstrations of charity, generosity, and inter-connectivity, powerful displays of the unique Areivus characteristic of the Jewish people.

The Mitzvos of the day of Purim are all centered around connecting us to one another. We give to our poor, we send gifts to each other, we feast together, we gather to hear the Megillah publicly. This year, we may be overcome by cynicism, wondering how we can possibly have a fulfilling, meaningful Purim when the safest Shalach Manos idea seems to be to simply send bottles of Purell to all our neighbors and friends. Yet, while the idea of celebrating Purim in such a manner may feel discouraging and depressing, and while our fear and uncertainty may indeed lead us to have the urge to withdraw from one another and from our nationwide celebrations, now is the time to engage in opposite action for that urge to withdraw and find unique ways to stay connected.

This week, so many schools and communities and groups have found ways around this debilitating separation and isolation by harnessing the incredible connecting powers of the Internet to join together despite mandated distance. Never has it been more crucial to utilize whatever means we can to connect to our fellow Jews, and Purim itself will be no exception. In the wise words of Albus Dumbledore, “we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.” No matter the physical distance or challenge facing us, we must continue to persevere and overcome, together. So, this Purim, grab your phone, laptop, or iPad, and join Klal Yisrael the world over, going above and beyond to redefine what it means to connect and unite as a nation.

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