Today, I remember. I remember vividly the all-consuming sadness I felt last Purim, as the sun was setting and my celebratory seudah was ending, the last event I attended with a large Jewish community. I remember feeling overcome with the intuitive sense that it would be a long, long time before I would daven with a minyan, learn in a physical bet midrash, and otherwise gather to sing, celebrate, learn, mourn, and grieve with others outside of my small pod. I also distinctly recall not knowing how to explain my sorrow. Last Purim, we knew there was a deadly, dangerous virus looming. I remember the conversation surrounding the question of whether one could attend a virtual Megillah reading. Were the circumstances really that grave that a virtual reading could be sufficient for those for whom in person gatherings took religious precedence? Surely this outbreak will be a few months at most—we’ll be back to “normal” by Shavuot.
As I think back over this turbulent year, I am humbled by my own sense of assumed knowing, on a holiday that is all about not knowing. Purim is, after all, many things. It is a holiday about opposites, reversals, revelations, and concealments. It is also understood to be about knowing and not knowing. Traditionally, one is supposed to drink until they cannot tell the difference between blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman. It should go without saying but I feel absolutely obligated to say that this knowing and not knowing is not only achieved through the use of intoxicating substances. Our sages also teach that the knowing and not knowing is about achieving a mystical union with all that is. For those of us who are spiritually inclined but for whom achieving mystical union with all that exists feels a bit too abstract or out there, we can also think of this idea of knowing and not knowing as related to the Gemara’s famous teaching in Shabbat 88a concerning our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai.
The Gemara cites additional homiletic interpretations on the topic of the revelation at Sinai.
״וַיִּתְיַצְּבוּ בְּתַחְתִּית הָהָר״, אָמַר רַב אַבְדִּימִי בַּר חָמָא בַּר חַסָּא: מְלַמֵּד שֶׁכָּפָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת הָהָר כְּגִיגִית, וְאָמַר לָהֶם: אִם אַתֶּם מְקַבְּלִים הַתּוֹרָה מוּטָב, וְאִם לָאו — שָׁם תְּהֵא קְבוּרַתְכֶם.
אָמַר רַב אַחָא בַּר יַעֲקֹב: מִכָּאן מוֹדָעָא רַבָּה לְאוֹרָיְיתָא.
אָמַר רָבָא: אַף עַל פִּי כֵן הֲדוּר קַבְּלוּהָ בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, דִּכְתִיב: ״קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים״ — קִיְּימוּ מַה שֶּׁקִּיבְּלוּ כְּבָר.
The Torah says: “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa interprets this verse in the following way: [Because of the language of “lowermost part of the mountain,” the verse implies that the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain], and comes to teach that that the Holy One, blessed be God, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them, “If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial.”
Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: This would undermine our obligation to fulfill the Torah! The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding.
Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them,” (Esther 9:27). The Jews “ordained” that which they had already “taken upon” themselves through coercion at Sinai.
We encounter here the famous idea that our acceptance of the covenant through our declaration of we will do, and we will hear, or we will listen was not, in the rabbi’s read done willingly. We were coerced. It was not until the days of Purim that we in fact willingly accepted the Torah upon ourselves. During this time of knowing and not knowing, we are provided here with an interesting juxtaposition. On a day when we tend to be consumed by physical delights and pleasures, we also celebrate our fullest acceptance of Torah.
Admittedly, as someone for whom Purim has, at the best of times, been incredibly alienating, this shift in emphasis is comforting. I can immerse myself in my love of learning Torah and skip the parties. No more need I attend a Megillah reading feeling utterly miserable on the happiest of days because the room is loud and I cannot hear anything going on, knowing all the while that this holiday is so visual, with everyone showing off their costumes and laughing at comedic sketches that I miss because I cannot see them. Learning all Purim night? Now that I can get behind!
If I’m being honest with myself, and if we are being honest with ourselves, what does that shift in emphasis actually mean for us? Isn’t everything Torah ultimately? We are not a people known for our asceticism. In fact, our tradition requires us to take pleasure from the physical world and thereby elevate and make it sacred. Purim is deeply a part of that. I have to remind myself that just because the loud and chaotic Megillah readings of years past left me feeling deeply alienated, that in no way means that Purim is not mine to take hold of, just as we each take hold of all of the festivals.
Which brings me back to the somber character of this Purim and I imagine all Purims subsequent to this year. We are both marking the one year anniversary of this terrible pandemic and celebrating a tremendous moment of redemption for the Jewish people. The Gemara’s teaching above and our celebrations of Purim are both experienced collectively. We celebrate our deliverance together and our acceptance of Torah together as one people. We know from this past year that we need community to remain resilient and to hold us and that community is and can be experienced in so many ways. I remain humbled and deeply moved by how SVARA has pivoted and how so many of us have pivoted to navigate this crumble and crash. Even and especially as we mourn the tremendous losses of this time, we are unearthing new possibilities for connection which I pray stay with us long after COVID is eradicated and we are all vaccinated, speedily and in our days, amein!
And yet, the yearning to find individual expression within a communal framework is with me deeply. I bring that juxtaposition with me as I celebrate and receive all that Purim holds for me. This Purim, as I prepare to hear Megillah in an environment that will better meet my needs, I allow myself to open to the expansive possibilities of this holiday, knowing that my own not knowing prevented me from showing up most authentically in my own life as a Jew and as a lover of Torah. May this holiday with all of its layers of possibility, struggle, and promise allow us to get even a taste of the world we are co-creating into being.