This Thursday evening, the Jewish world begins celebrating the raucous holiday of Purim, when silliness prevails over seriousness and levity wins the day. But some years, Purim feels harder than other years, and levity just doesn’t feel accessible on demand. This year, many of us are thinking back mournfully to Purim last March—our very last uninhibited communal gathering before we went into lockdown and life as we knew it changed forever. Since that gathering, Covid-19, has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands in our world, leaving loved ones to grieve in solitude—without hugs and touch, familiar rituals, or company. Lives have been disrupted, insulted by the harsh effects of the Covid-19 economy and its prolonged, painful fallout. This Purim may feel like a hard one to throw yourself into.
And yet Purim’s coming, whatever our mood. It’s always a curious proposition when a Jewish holiday comes along on which a strong emotion is commanded: whether the command is to “rejoice on your festival,” revel on Purim, or be tragically sad on Tishah B’Av. We know what the mood in the room is supposed to be, and that sanctioned mood confronts us, as individuals, with a choice—whether to participate with the community when this is what the community is meant to feel, or whether to just sit this one out.
Perhaps not surprisingly, our tradition almost always lands on the side of participation.
This traditional Jewish preference for participation in the prescribed emotion of a special day expresses itself in a host of ways. For instance, when we’re in shivah—the first week of mourning after a death, and Shabbat rolls around, which is meant to be a day of joy and contentment, we are not to display the outward signs of grief that we do the rest of that difficult week. During the first year of mourning for a parent, we are not to join in the dancing and singing at a wedding, lest we appear happy in the face of our loss, but we are still encouraged to attend the wedding ceremony and even take on a role, like serving the meal afterwards. Poskim hold that our suffering may only be increased if we suffer the additional loss of communal participation, especially in an event we were once looking forward to sharing with people that we love.
Jewish people are always shocked when they hear that a festival like Pesach or Sukkot cancels the formal mourning period—the seven days of shivah or the thirty days of shloshim after a death. How can this be? Our grief doesn’t stop, but we stop expressing it? For the sake of participating in a festival whose joy we’re really not in the frame of mind to absorb? My soul used to writhe against the thought of this practice. Until one year, I was at a Jewish convention, the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial, and on the second morning, I lost a beloved uncle unexpectedly; he died after what should have been a routine surgery and recovery. I didn’t know what to do with my grief—should I just go home? Was it wrong to stay? Did my family need me? Would I even get anything out of being at the festival? (And yes, when 5,000 Jews show up for a convention that only meets every two years, travel there, and look forward for months to learning and singing and joining in stirring worship together, yes, that is our contemporary Jewish chag—our pilgrimage festival of holy time together.) I wasn’t sure I wanted to give up all I’d invested to be there, or all that I’d hoped it would fill me with spiritually. The truth in my heart was that I wanted to stay, because this wasn’t just some party—it was, rather, exactly what my soul needed to cope and begin to heal. My purposes for being there hadn’t changed with my uncle’s death. In fact, they’d amplified: I longed more for connection, more for communal opportunities to pray, more for a community to say Kaddish alongside other mourners, and a shoulder to lean on. More, for moments of levity to pull me out of my own head and take me to another place, if only for fleeting moments of relief.
The Biennial—festive though it was—was exactly where I needed to be, and my religion gave me permission to be there. I didn’t ignore my grief. My shivah wasn’t cancelled in that sense. In what was probably one of the first online memorial services, I “gathered” with my broken relatives on my computer screen, while in my hotel room colleagues from rabbinical school and past congregations where I’d interned sang and chanted psalms. My roommate and I planned the ceremony together, which was in itself a healing act and a learning experience, as she faced my raw grief so ably and compassionately. And in the days that followed, I let my mind be carried off to wherever the speakers took me—my rabbinic teachers, the keynote address by President Obama, the musicians that made my heart soar and my eyes sore from crying.
Somehow, the tradition knew that’s where I needed to be despite all, and because of all, that life had thrown at me that week.
So how should we approach the unrelenting expectation of festivity on Purim, if we happen to find ourselves in a struggling state of mind? If you are someone for whom levity feels possible, delight in it fully. Laugh heartily. But if you’re not in such a place, after a difficult year, then maybe Purim offers a different but healing path, and blessings you have yet to discover. Perhaps sitting it out will only increase loss and exacerbate pain, because something will be happening that you’re meant to be a part of. Where there’s a place carved out just for you.
You don’t have to feel happy every minute in that place. A curious rule on Purim is that we should not send mishlo-ach manot—Purim gifts—to someone in mourning, because we shouldn’t force joy upon them while their dead lie before them—and yet the mourner is not exempt from the Purim mitzvah of sending gifts to others. We’re also taught that while a mourner on Purim needn’t act silly and rejoice, they should still partake of the Purim feast. Our forebears knew how much a communal meal could nourish body and soul.
Our sages found ways that we could grow spiritually, even in the darkest times, by participating in the life of the community even when we’re not in the mood. Our participation is perhaps a prayer for finding levity again after a hard year—and in those days, for the Jewish people, they were all hard years. The wisdom they gleaned and passed down to us is our guide in times of confusion. May their memory bless our days.
Rabbi Nicole Roberts is Senior Rabbi of North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.