In my family, perhaps like in yours, Purim is the most anticipated and lighthearted day of the year. Laughter flows freely even for the teetotallers, and even the most serious and sedate among us are playful. We exchange kibitzing, Torah thoughts, food baskets and hugs. But as Purim approaches this year I am guarded. How is Purim this year supposed to feel? And regardless of how it is supposed to feel, how will I feel?
The missiles continue to fall and residents of Ukraine continue to flee their homes and towns. We listen, watch and grow increasingly aghast and confused.
The number of individuals in severe distress is staggering, and they include tens of thousands of Jews. Many are children, many are elderly. They are homeless, hungry, cold and disoriented. The phase of “picking up the broken pieces” is nowhere in sight as the storm rages on.
At the same time, the festival of Purim is just days away; a period during which joy and merriment fill our hearts and homes. This confluence introduces yet another layer of personal confusion in an ever increasingly bewildering world. How can we assimilate revelry and destruction? And is it even appropriate to do so?
Should we tinker with this year’s Purim celebration? Perhaps focus on the Purim obligations of matanos laevyonim (gifts to the needy) and reading the Megillah, and less so on the obligatory Purim seuda (banquet) and sharing delicacies with peers?
As our brethren suffer, can we jocularly dress our children in adorable costumes, cheerfully engage in wine and song, and celebrate camaraderie with family and friends? What does doing so say about our sense of empathy and care? Should we adjust the atmosphere and our demeanor this Purim to be somber and reserved rather than merry and convivial?
For us Jews, this dilemma is not new.
Throughout Jewish history, tragic events and circumstances belie celebratory festivals. We are all too familiar with unspeakable destruction and dread. But we are a people that can celebrate our history and our special relationship with God despite the horrors that surround us. In fact, it is during less sanguine periods that we are particularly able to revel with authentic religious joy since it is only then that our celebration is so clearly a sincere reflection of our profound appreciation for God’s Providence and love.
As we recount in our Passover Haggadah, it is with this courage and faith that two thousand years ago a Seder was observed by the greatest of rabbis in a cellar in Bnai Brak only years following the destruction of the Holy Temple. And this legacy was continued just decades ago as a Seder was held by the bravest of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, and in other horrendous locations as the monstrosities of the Holocaust were perpetrated, not far from the current atrocities.
This year we will once again attempt to celebrate amidst tragedy. We hope that our religious observances will transcend our earthly experiences. We hope the celebration of Purim is timeless despite the harsh realities of the time; realities of history that perpetually vacillate between joy and sorrow, exile and redemption.
Like so many of you, my Purim mission this year will be to simultaneously embrace joy and concern. I fear, however, that I have yet to master this tightrope balancing act. I may find myself either spending Purim joyously celebrating in disregard of the plight of others, or suffering a dampened celebration, distracted by the prevailing tragedies. But like so many dimensions of our religious journey, it is not our achievements but rather our striving for mastery that defines us.
And so I wish you and your family a joyous and freiliche Purim. And as did Esther and Mordechai, may we observe a period of tragedy speedily transition to a new era of world peace and personal tranquility.