Today, Friday, Feb. 26, the 14th of Adar in the Hebrew calendar, Jews all over the world, including of course, members of Newburyport’s Congregation Ahavas Achim, are celebrating the holiday of Purim.
Purim commemorates the exploits of Esther, queen of the ancient kingdom of Persia around the 5th century BCE, and her uncle Mordechai.
The entire Jewish population of the land was days away from complete annihilation at the hands of Haman, the evil adviser to King Ahasuerus, when Queen Esther, coached by her uncle, bravely stepped in, revealed herself to be Jewish, and begged her husband the king for clemency for her people.
The best-known cultural symbol of Purim is hamantaschen, a three-corned, jam-filled cookie that represents the tri-corner hat Haman was said to have worn.
Purim is a holiday of intense joy and celebration — we celebrate our ancestors escaping their dark fate with festive meals, parties and costumes. Indeed, there is a saying in the Talmud, “mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha”— from the moment the month of Adar begins, we multiply our joy [in honor or Purim].
Yet, because Purim marks a tragedy that was avoided, the holiday requires us to internalize a deep dichotomy: in the midst of our celebration, we cannot overlook the terror caused by Haman’s plot or our own sadness at the presence of anti-Semitism that has dogged our people throughout the ages.
In fact, it’s not easy to be commanded to be joyous. Even in a normal year, setting aside the tensions and stresses of our everyday lives can be a challenge on Purim day, to say nothing of the whole month.
This year, our joy seems especially tempered: Purim 2020 was the last in-person event we held in our synagogue. Our traditional carnival for our Hebrew School students was downsized, hand sanitizer was everywhere, and everyone was a bit uneasy.
By the following week, schools were closed and we were figuring out how to hold Shabbat services over Zoom.
Ahavas Achim was not alone in having to confront the new pandemic: so many institutions we rely on for normalcy and meaning in our lives, religious and secular, shut down before the month was out.
And now, even as I’ve spent these weeks preparing my costume (a dinosaur outfit in front of a prehistoric Zoom backdrop, in case you were wondering) and baking and distributing hamantaschen to our congregation, it seems impossible to hold the joy of Purim side by side with the built-up grief and loss that we all have experienced over the past year.
To rise to this challenge, I’m so glad that we have our community to prop us up; to help us find the moments of joy in a year that has often felt awash in a sea of heaviness.
The tears and isolation of the past year have been very real, but so have the support, smiles and laughs we have shared over Zoom and whenever we recognize a friendly face underneath our masks.
Were we unable to hold our collective joy together with our collective heartache, we never would have been able to make it to this point with the continued strength to persevere.
So, this Purim, I’m struck by the words of a short poem by Mary Oliver titled "We Shake with Joy": “We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two, housed as they are in the same body.”
That’s the story of Purim — and this entire year — in two lines of verse, and I’ll be feeling it deeply today from within my dinosaur costume.
Alex Matthews is the congregational leader of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Newburyport.