By Rick Gwynallen
I was standing outside in the cold looking at the first sliver of the waxing moon in February when it struck me. Purim is upon us, and though our joy is supposed to increase with Adar I cannot help but be reminded of what a tragic anniversary it represents this year. We are drawing upon one full year when our synagogue, like so many places in the world, went dark, and we all shifted to work from home and virtual events and meetings. That Purim was the last big event before a grim understanding of what we were facing sunk in. We were all celebrating, here and throughout the world, interacting freely, and, in places, unwittingly, giving free reign to COVID-19. Only the briefest glimmer of the rise of COVID-19 had been released to the public, and wholly underplayed. So, we celebrated. It’s not that no one knew. Some of the elite did know. The rest of us just weren’t being told. And there were those who became sick in that very period of early March of 2020, and some who later died. Some might have been saved had we all been told not to gather. Those of us who have survived after a year and more than 500,000 deaths in the United States alone are grateful to reach this point when so many did not.
Even with this weight bearing down upon us the moon is now nearly full and there was a taste of spring in the warmer evening and now in the early morning. More than ever E. B. White’s comment comes to mind: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” The answer, of course, is to find the way to do both.
It’s not been all bad in the last year. Fissures in our society have been widening. The public health crisis came on the heels of mass movements exposing systemic racism, further laying bare the injustices and inequalities that are a daily reality in our society and igniting more mass resistance. More people have come to see workers they ignored in the past as essential to making the society function. More people are openly reconsidering how we think about our history. At the same time, the very isolation we experienced seemed to let the rest of the world heal a little. The clock is ticking on climate change, on the earth itself, and what kind of society we will build. And the possibility for a lasting response exists.
The line in the Megillah of Esther that draws my eye every year, and haunts my footsteps, is close to the last line of the megillah, after the Jews are victorious: “King Ahasuerus levied taxes on both the mainland and the islands.” (Megillah of Esther; 29)
At first glance it seems such a mundane thing to insert after such a dramatic story. I think most of us read and ignore it. I did so for years. But it’s important. Several years back, one person in a Torah class offered that the line intends to convey that the danger has passed and that things have returned to normal. The question, of course, is whether or not normal is okay.
The Jews were once again saved, for a time. Queen Esther established the days of Purim. Mordecai became viceroy and was able to look out for the well-being of his people. But actually little had changed. The king was still king with all the powers he had previously. As long as Esther remained a favorite with the King, and as long as the king valued Mordecai, things should be okay. But if any of that changed, the king could again be the king that condemns the Jews, or the king that follows him. As we have read, a pharaoh arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph. (Shemot; 1:8) The power dynamics shifted a little, but they did not change fundamentally. And that is the final lesson with which the Megillah of Esther leaves us: Nothing fundamental has changed.
But we celebrate. And why not? After such a potential horror a people breathes a collective sigh of relief.
Even temporary victories are victories. And in Shushan the Jews did not wait for an obvious miracle. They rose to ensure their safety themselves.
When I began political organizing as a teen, one of the trainers said we should not enter this field with illusions. Whatever victories we have will have to be defended the next day. But we still celebrate those victories because they are steps forward on a long road and life would be too hard if we forgot to have joy. In this respect, Purim is very much like Shabbat, where we are commanded to be joyous despite the struggles that surround us. Purim reminds us that things are not always quite what they seem; that human society does not have to be what it is; and that we have agency to create change.
We must always be mindful of what a beautiful world this is, and what a gift living every day is. Yet, that beauty, or our sigh of relief after escaping a tragedy, should not seduce us into complacency. To cleanse this beautiful world of oppression, inequality, and violence is in the end the only fundamental change that will allow everyone to enjoy the world to its fullest.
To my mind, to fully have joy in Adar this year, we need to consider how we emerge from our pandemic isolation better than we were before, not just recreating a previous “normal”, more committed to the kind of change that removes the injustices the pandemic laid bare, and to forge a world where the last lines of the story are not that the king “levied taxes on both the mainland and the islands” – not new leaders same system – but the beginning of a great liberation.