The Jewish interpretive tradition has a wonderful way of using word play to derive meaning and connection from sacred text. One of my favorite examples of this is how commentators make a connection between Yom Kippur–the solemn Day of Atonement–and Purim–the festive celebration of the events of the Book of Esther. Since the prefix “k-” (the letter kaf) in Hebrew could mean “like” or “as,” the midrash goes that Yom Kippurim is really Yom k-Purim–a day like Purim. Thus these two holidays with seemingly very disparate themes are linked together.
It is interesting to think then how that is. What solemn aspects of atonement apply to the celebration of Purim? And what fun and festive aspects of Purim apply to the observance of Yom Kippur?
As we draw closer to Purim, perhaps the former question is more on our minds.
For all its festivity expressed in food and drink and costumes and parties, the fun of Purim is rooted in a dark place–the specter of Jewish hatred that led to a near genocide. It was only through the courage of Esther, as the story goes, who puts her life at risk to reveal her true identity and confront the king that the destruction of the Jews is averted. But in any event, the story does still end in executions and bloodshed.
The “topsy turvy” nature of life, in which we think things are going one way and they turn out another, is given expression through the fun of Purim. And the solemnity can come from the remembering the underlying cause of the happiness.
And the reverse is true as well. On Yom Kippur we remember the ways we have erred and strayed, and seek to atone for what we have done wrong and commit to do better in the future. Normally expressed through prayer and fasting, Yom Kippur has a solemn feel. But Yom Kippur also marks the “topsy turvy” nature of life, in which we realize and give expression to the fact that they way things are is not the way they need to be. Things can turn out differently. Thus Yom Kippur can be a bit joyous too.
Unfortunately, with the expanding pandemic of the coronavirus, a cloud is settling over our celebration of Purim this year. Some communities are cancelling their celebrations, or doing things differently. Our celebration at Temple Beth Hatfiloh is going on as planned, with the regular admonitions to wash hands and stay away if sick.
But the cononavirus is another real reminder that we may think things are going one way, and then they turn out to be going another. There is a certain irony that the virus is demonstrating the theme of the holiday by causing disruption to the observance of the holiday.
But like Yom Kippur, we do have some control and can do our best to make things turn out alright. As we read in the liturgy on Yom Kippur: “Repentance, prayer, and charity can avert the severe decree,” meaning that despite the difficulties we face, our human action can make this life better for ourselves and others.
So too here, in many ways the spread of the virus is beyond us. But there are things we can do to help contain it and mitigate its spread in order to take care of ourselves and others. This Purim (and all times really) wash your hands, sanitize your surfaces, and stay home if sick. This Purim (and Yom Kippur, and all times really) we remember that life can be both solemn and fun.