First reported to the World Health Organisation in December 2019 following its detection in Wuhan province in China, it has been a year now since COVID-19 became a global pandemic.
And so, this year of the coronavirus has also spanned the cycle of the Jewish months from Nisan through Adar – as well as all the usual annual commemorative milestones, beginning with Pesach.
Last Purim, we gathered in our shuls for our festivities, but by Pesach this was no longer possible. At BHPS, having started to hold Shabbat services online on March 21st, the communal Pesach Seder on the first night was a surreal Zoom affair, involving dozens of screens and a cacophony of voices recalling that ‘our ancestors were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’. Since then, we have added ‘Zoom skills’ to our Jewish repertoire, and learnt that in order for the liturgy to be heard, everyone except the person speaking or singing needs to be on ‘mute’.
At the end of February, we will complete the cycle of the festivals with Purim. Now, that really will present us with a Zoom conundrum. In order to fulfil the obligation to drown out all mentions of the evil protagonist of the Book of Esther, we must all shout and boo and hiss. So, a special Zoom dispensation for Purim: make sure you ‘unmute’ for the M’gillah reading!
Apart from presenting a challenge to our newly-acquired Zoom conventions, the arrival of Purim will also serve as an important reminder. Of course, Purim is all about remembering – hence, Shabbat Zachor prior to Purim, when we read the passage at the end of parashat Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) about how Amalek, ancestor of Haman, attacked the weakest, the stragglers in the rear, as the slaves left Egypt. But celebrating Purim is not just about recalling our long experience of persecution. The very way in which we celebrate – the booing, the fancy-dress attire, the license to drink and gorge on hamantaschen – is a reminder of our capacity, not just to survive, but to thrive – and to drink a perpetual toast: L’Chayyim! To Life! Just imagine all those segregated, oppressed Jewish communities down the ages, getting into the spirit of Purim, despite the knowledge that Easter with its accompanying incitement to the local populous to attack the ‘Christ-killers’, was just around the corner.
So, this year, as our lives continue to be circumscribed and threatened by the COVID-19 onslaught, let’s continue to party at Purim and continue to fulfil those other mitzvot connected with the festival – exchanging gifts and giving to those in need – albeit, while maintaining coronavirus precautions. After all, what we have learned most from our history as a people, and have been reminded about again and again during the pandemic, is that whatever the circumstances, our lives are enhanced when we give to others and reach out to those in need.
L’Chayyim! – and Purim Samei’ach!