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Faith in Focus: The holiday of Purim in a pandemic
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Faith in Focus

Faith in Focus: The holiday of Purim in a pandemic

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Jews will celebrate the Holiday of Purim from Thursday night through the day Friday. Purim is a one day holiday that occurs usually in February or March.

We are still in the grip of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and it is February, and the snow and ice storms keep coming. I know that I am finding this month a difficult month.

There is something rather depressing about February: the grip of winter, the gray skies and the cold. For me it is also the month in which my mother died, six years ago.

I observed her Yahrzeit (anniversary of her death) on Feb. 10. And then a few days ago I lost my oldest cat, Isabella, who was almost 19. I am feeling a bit out of sorts as a result. The house is so quiet without my old kitty, despite the fact that I have two young cats. They miss her, too.

And I feel that I am in a waiting mode—waiting for spring, waiting for my COVID vaccine, waiting for life to start up again, waiting to be able to do “normal” things like go out and visit with friends in their homes or to have friends visit me. February is not my favorite month, and definitely it is worse than usual this year!

The Hebrew month of Adar started on Saturday, Feb. 13, the start of the month of Purim. Adar is supposed to be a happy month as we anticipate, and then celebrate, Purim. That just seems harder for me this year. I definitely am feeling the winter blues.

But perhaps I am looking at this situation completely wrong. I am feeling rather down right now, but it is Adar. Purim is coming. And what message does Purim give us? It is a message of hope. Purim is a celebration of deliverance of the Jewish people from a wicked person who sought to kill them all.

You may know the story, because it is recounted in the Biblical book of Esther. Esther was a young beautiful Jewish woman in Shushan, Persia, who won a “beauty contest” to marry the Persian king, Ahasuerus. When she married the king, he didn’t know that she was Jewish and she didn’t tell him.

Besides Esther and the King, there are two other important protagonists in this story — Mordechai and Haman. Mordechai was Esther’s uncle, and a man who had at one time saved the life of the King. Haman was the “Grand Vizier,” and he hated Jews, especially Mordechai.

Haman convinced the King (who seemed to be a fool) to kill all the Jews in Shushan on the 14th day of the month of Adar. This day was chosen by the King’s magicians casting lots or “pur,” plural “purim,” to choose the date. When Mordechai heard about Haman’s plot, he convinced Esther that she needed to convince the King to stop Haman’s plans, no matter what it took.

According to the rules of the court, Esther was not allowed to approach the King unless invited. But Esther chose to risk her own life in approaching the King, uninvited, to intervene for her people. She revealed to Ahasuerus that she herself was Jewish, and would be killed if Haman’s plan went forward.

Ahasuerus then stopped the planned slaughter, and instead of killing Mordechai and the Jewish people, had Haman hanged for his crimes. As a result, all Jews celebrate the deliverance of the Jews of Shushan on the 14th of Adar.

We all feel very vulnerable right now, not so much from a wicked person (Haman), but from a virus that has decimated our lives, our communities and our economy. Reading the Book of Esther, we can imagine that there was suffering in the land of Persia and the city of Shushan at that time, too. Certainly most of the people of Shushan were not living in luxury, having drunken parties, like King Ahasuerus was! Most of the people of Shushan were struggling each day to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads—just like many of our neighbors are today.

As I said, I am feeling the winter blues right now, but I am determined that I will observe and enjoy Purim despite that!

So what am I going to do? First I am going to bake Hamantaschen. What are Hamantaschen? These are delicious, very rich, triangular shaped cookies filled with poppy seeds or cherries or other candied fruits. The name means “Haman’s Ears.”

Then I will be follow an important Purim tradition, called “Shalach-manot,” which means “sending gifts” of food to friends and neighbors and to the poor in the community. I will give gifts of Hamantaschen to several sets of neighbors whose caring and periodic phone calls have helped sustain me in these difficult, pandemic times. I can distribute those while observing social distancing!

And finally, I plan to be on a Zoom call for a Women’s Megillah reading, on Purim itself. This will be the traditional reading of the Biblical Book of Esther, the Megillah or “Megillat Esther,” from beginning to end. Even though I cannot be physically with my own congregation and friends this year for the Megillah reading, I will be with a wider Jewish congregation as we enjoy making noise to drown out the name of Haman, and as we cheer the names of Mordechai and Esther.

Just anticipating that fun is to helping me to stop feeling sorry for myself, and to get me out of my winter blues. Perhaps that is why Purim is such a great holiday—it comes at a hard, grey time of year, but it offers us the chance to find joy despite difficult times.

Emily Burt-Hedrick is the president of the Congregation Beth Tikvah.

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