A Pandemic Purim

OLD - DO NOT USE Rabbi Eliana Fischel headshot

The last time we celebrated a holiday in person at Washington Hebrew, we celebrated Purim. We prayed in a country-themed Shabbat service. Hundreds of us. In one sanctuary. Singing, celebrating, and laughing together. That Sunday, we played at a Purim carnival “sponsored” by Purell. Children played games while parents schmoozed. Besides the immense work our custodial and religious school staff did to ensure everyone’s safety throughout the weekend, there was nothing too special about the holiday’s celebrations. Back then, a ridiculous service followed by an uplifting carnival was just what we did. It is how we have celebrated Purim for years. Who knew that 12 months later, such events, such lightheartedness, such laughter could feel so foreign?

Purim is an absurd holiday any year. We prance around in costumes while we read a story about attempted genocide. We acknowledge the presence of evil in the king’s adviser, Haman, but we blot out his name with a grogger, a deliciously fun toy invented to annoy parents. At WHC, we celebrate Purim with parody services and carnivals, an antithesis to the death and destruction in the Purim story.

These types of celebrations feel particularly absurd this year. Not only are parties and carnivals not safe, but they do not seem to fit with the heaviness of our reality. How can we celebrate at all when there has been so much tragedy? So much pain? So much death?

How can we celebrate in the midst of tragedy? We are Jews. This is what we do. In the face of tragedy, we Jews do not just survive. We celebrate. We teach that a funeral procession yields for a wedding procession (Ketubot 17A). We halt our period of mourning to celebrate festivals (Chatam Sofer YD 348). We make a holiday about death and destruction into an absurd party of costumes and carnivals. We celebrate. Not because we are crass, but because we are resilient.

This year, we will not gather in person for a parody service or an indoor carnival, so how can we celebrate appropriately? How can we celebrate to increase our resilience? When we boil down our Purim celebrations of the past, they all have one commonality at their core: laughter. Whether it is congregants laughing at the parody songs, clergy laughing at our own ridiculousness, or children laughing in a bouncy castle, laughter permeates our Purim celebrations. This year need not be different. Let’s celebrate Purim by laughing.

In case you question the ability of laughter to fulfill our obligation to celebrate a religious holiday, fear not. Laughter is powerful. In Laugh Your Way to Grace, Rev. Susan Sparks explains that, “Laughter is the beauty and the light and the spirit we all carry within. We just need to acknowledge and welcome it as a gift from and a means to the Holy.” Laughter is not just powerful; laughter can connect us to the Holy within ourselves, the Holy within our world, and, dare I say, the holy within Purim.

So, this Purim, let’s make sure we laugh. Laugh at your clergy during our Purim service on Friday, February 26. Delight in our drive-through WHECTY Purim carnival on Sunday, February 28. Giggle as you taste the sweetness of a hamantashen. Chuckle to yourself as you create bags of mishloach manot, gifts of food for friends and people in need. Allow the absurdity of Purim to highlight the absurdity of our lives. Then laugh at that absurdity. Not because we are crass, but because “in such a time as this” (Esther 4:14) we need to be resilient.

We need to laugh.