By Sharon Weiss-Greenberg
One year ago, we were debating how to navigate Purim carnivals — not whether they should take place. We were told that masks would not protect you from COVID-19 and were to be worn to celebrate Purim purely for entertainment.
Last year, my family dressed and attended Megillah readings with fewer than 100 people, which was considered extremely cautious at the time. By forgoing a potluck Purim meal for pizzas that were delivered and served to family units, we did not feel like we were compromising the holiday too much — and in making said minor adjustments, we were in fact going above and beyond the then gold standard to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A number of people sent coronavirus-themed mishloach manot or dressed up like Corona beer, but we all thought that this would pass well before we had set our tables for the Passover seder.
We were living in a more innocent time. The novel coronavirus that originated in China would soon sweep the globe, but for many of us it still felt far away. Testing was halting at first, and it wasn’t until after we had put away our Purim groggers and costumes that we became fully aware of how dramatically cases around the world had begun to spike. Then the lockdowns began and life has never been the same.
Since Purim one year ago, we have adjusted, adapted and found compromises — both clever and painful — for observing and celebrating Jewish holidays. We’ve gone virtual for many rituals and services, and done our best to maintain connections, relationships and community. It seems that as we approach each holiday still knee-deep in the pandemic, we begin by worrying about what this holiday can look like. We wonder how we can salvage the joyful, meaningful experiences.
When it comes to Purim, this feels especially painful. Not only are we one year into the pandemic, but Purim translates especially poorly to Zoom. How can we experience the cathartic joy, the carnivalesque release, the downright silliness when we are not together?
But instead of trying to recapture the raucous joy of Purim, it’s time to adjust our attitude and lean into a different, often neglected side of this holiday.
There are four mitzvot related to the holiday of Purim: reading the Megillah of Esther (which tells the story), eating and drinking in a festive manner, sending mishloach manot (edible food packages) and giving to the poor.
This last should be our focus.
We will still read the Megillah and in costume, albeit virtually and/or socially distant. We should still enjoy a festive meal with our families. We can still be joyous and exhibit the tradition of “v’nahafochu,” literally “turning things upside down” by being so joyous that we cannot keep the Purim story straight, in perhaps new ways. Traditionally, this is accomplished through alcohol consumption. This year, we can appreciate how wearing masks is no longer an occasional thing but a staple of our wardrobes. On Purim, let’s make them not only protective, but also joyful and silly.
My biggest hope, however, is that we more equally distribute the focus of these four mitzvot to highlight giving to the poor. The rates of poverty have skyrocketed in the past year. Families who had jobs and enough to care for their families and give tzedakah to support others are now standing in lines at food pantries.
This year, we can take time this week of Purim to consider the financial inequities and misfortune that have befallen our communities, including our dear friends and family. We may not be able to sing and dance together, but we can give and care for the poor, many of whom are not strangers and whose contingencies have risen.
Let’s allow our experience of a pandemic Purim to have a lasting impact on the values and meaning of the holiday. Yes, we should still thoughtfully cultivate much-needed joy, but we can also pay equal attention — perhaps this year even more attention — to those who are not as fortunate.
This year my family will still dress up. We will prepare mishloach manot — Purim gift baskets — with cards indicating that we have made donations in lieu of lavish gifts. We will read the Megillah as a family zooming with our community.
And as a family, we will choose where to make donations, and make it clear that we are blessed and grateful to be able to have a home and food and to help others have the same.
We will take the moment to laugh, eat, enjoy and be grateful for what we have and not what could have been. l
Sharon Weiss-Greenberg is director of education partnerships for My Jewish Learning. She studied at The Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and Yeshiva University and got a doctorate from New York University. She was the first Orthodox woman chaplain at Harvard University. This piece was first published by JTA.