Disruption is the Norm

Celebrating this Purim was bittersweet. Not the fact that we were on zoom this year, we have been doing this for quite some time and are finding ways to be creative and have fun in virtual spaces. No, its because of the memory that Purim was the last thing we did in person last year before everything shut down. At that time we knew we needed to wash our hands well and sanitize, and refrain from shaking hands, but not long after we were forced to isolate and social distance, meaning we needed to move our congregation online.

It was fun nonetheless, and we are buoyed by the hope now that we are possibly seeing the end of this pandemic. With vaccines created and being distributed, a time of in person gathering seems more and more realistic. This Purim, we can hopefully say, was an anomoly.

There is another anomoly around Purim this year that has nothing to do with pandemics. This one is based on our calendar. There are actually two dates on which Purim can be celebrated: the 14th of Adar and the 15th of Adar. In the Book of Esther we read:

That was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar; and they rested on the fourteenth day and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking. (But the Jews in Shushan mustered on both the thirteenth and fourteenth days, and so rested on the fifteenth, and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking.) That is why village Jews, who live in unwalled towns, observe the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and make it a day of merrymaking and feasting, and as a holiday and an occasion for sending gifts to one another. Mordecai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, near and far, charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year—the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.

Esther 9:17-22

In short, those who live in unwalled cities and villages celebrate Purim on the 14th of Adar, and those who live in walled cities (like the city of Shushan where the Purim story takes place) celebrate on the 15th of Adar. Today, in practice, the only city that observes Shushan Purim is Jerusalem. Nevertheless, on a contemporary Jewish calendar, the 14th of Adar is “Purim,” and the 15th of Adar is called “Shushan Purim.”

Normally, those days are right after each other–as soon as the sun sets on Purim, Shushan Purim begins. This year, however, because Purim falls on a Friday right before Shabbat, and our tradition teaches that we should not combine celebrations (each observance should be accorded its own honor, and doubling up will have the effect of weakening both), the observance of Shushan Purim is pushed back one day to Sunday. Shushan Purim is essentially postponed a day in order to observe our weekly day of rest.

There are four main observances of Purim, four Purim mitzvot, or “sacred obligations.” They are alluded to in the last verse quoted above. The four are: (1) reading the megillah and telling the story of Purim, (2) Having a seudah, a special meal or feast, (3) giving matanot l’evyonim, special charitable gifts to the poor, and (4) giving meshaloch manot, gifts of food and treats to friends and family. The costumes and the shpeils and the jokes and the fun are definitely part of the celebration, but it is these four that are the traditional religious obligations.

When we have the situation as we do this year, in which Shushan Purim is delayed, these four observances of Purim are actually split among the two days Purim is observed. The megillah and gifts to the poor are observed on Friday (“regular” Purim), and the seudah and the mesholach manot are observed on Sunday (Shushan Purim).

Again, while this remains largely theoretical as a majority of Jews live outside walled cities, it is an interesting practice and accommodation. In short, our calendar has a creative plan for when the calendar is disrupted. And because the calendar has a plan, the disruption becomes the norm.

We often use the term “topsy-turvy” when we refer to Purim as the story of the Book of Esther is about how things are seeming a certain way then suddenly they aren’t. Things that are hidden are revealed. It is also a story about courage, resilience, speaking truth to power. In the story a plan to kill the Jews was disrupted by Esther, things went from bad to good. And it is ironic that around Purim last year we experienced our own “topsy-turvy” moment as our normal was upended, and things went from good to bad.

And as we tell the story of the the “megillah” of Covid-19, we are also developing our own courage, resilience, and speaking truth to power. We mourn and grieve, and at the same time we upset our own comfort and daily lives in order to help and protect others, we demand societal change to allow those devastated by this virus to get the support they need, and we learn to approach life and community differently and creatively in order to adapt to a new norm.

It is this last point that will be a legacy from Covid-19, and is a lesson already embedded in the Jewish calendar regarding Purim. Though we are facing a once-in-a-lifetime event in this pandemic, it is not the first time “normal” life has been disrupted. This is not the first time we have had to adapt and change in response to an altered circumstance. It is not the first time we have had to redefine what “normal” is, to shift our expectations and assumptions, to create plans for when things don’t go as anticipated.

And because of that, we can come to understand that life is always “topsy-turvy.” That disruption isn’t an anomaly, disruption is the norm. And we possess the creativity, resilience, and courage to face it.

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