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Quarantine Diaries: Responding to the Challenge

Purim last year

I have now been in quarantine for six days, and while I have mostly been able to keep my spirits up despite the isolation, there are challenging moments. The hardest day was Purim, a day which is usually spent with parties, music and dancing, dressing up, Purim banquets, and general frolicking in the streets and celebrating with our community. I was not able to go to our organization’s Megilla reading in Tel Aviv with over 500 young people. This year I was told the numbers were smaller but the evening was still very lively. I did follow the Megila reading at night online with a live stream from a synagogue in Efrat, so at least I was connected to communal reading and celebration. I have a Megilla scroll so during the day I read the Megila myself (with an audio recording in the background to make sure I was not making mistakes).

Purim this year

I believe everything happens to us for a reason, so what lessons should I take away from this experience? You will have the benefit of the lessons without having to go through the quarantine, or you may benefit from some pointers of how to be at home as more of society starts to shut down. The first take-away is that while indeed I did follow the Megila reading with a community online with a video feed, and I can get real time comments to all that is going on in the world through Facebook, nothing replaces real human contact. In our age of connectivity, virtual connection will never replace real human contact, especially with our loved ones, but also with a wider community. We are social animals and need human contact. So when you want to connect, call instead of texting. Or even better, instead of a phone call, get together over a cup of coffee and have the direct human contact. We must not lose sight of the value of human contact and caring.

There is a second lesson I drew from the Purim experience in isolation. Purim is a holiday of rejoicing, singing, dancing, joking, drinking, dressing up and generally having fun. While I missed this part of the Purim experience, since there is a mitzvah to be happy on Purim, I had to take another approach. What helped me figure out how to do this was a teaching of the Malbim, the great nineteenth century thinker Rabbi Meir Leibish Wisser. In his lexicon, HaCarmel, he distinguishes between two types of happiness, sasson and simcha.

Sasson he says is precisely the experience of Purim, the emotional high, the excitement and the strong feelings of joy and celebration. It is the externalization of the emotion of happiness. In our society, we often seek out these types of experiences, and in fact most or our leisure time is spent seeking entertainment in the form of movies, shows, going out and vacations. We seek these experiences because we want them to engulf us and to transport us to a new head space and to alter our emotional state. While it is good to have outlets and to be able to get out of our daily routine, our entertainment often lacks true meaning or purpose and we use it as a distraction from the day to day responsibility of our lives. Purim is so special because it combines both joy and meaning, which in the end is what kosher partying is about.

Simcha, on the other hand, says the Malbim, is a deeper type of inner happiness. It is a feeling of purpose and satisfaction achieved through meaningful activities and accomplishments in our lives. I wound up spending a lot of time on the phone on Purim with the US dealing with the situation with my sister who was in a bad accident a number of months ago. And so while it may not have been the most joyful Purim full of the usual sasson, it was a Purim of simcha, knowing I had fulfilled the mitzvoth of the day despite the challenges, and knowing that I had made some progress in helping my sister.

I would like to conclude with a final thought about the turn of events going on the world around the Coronavirus. Many of us might be wondering why this is happening, especially if our world-view is one where the Almighty has a hand in directing the unfolding of events in the world. People want to know why is the world going through such a challenging period, with so much illness? In this week’s Torah reading when Moshe asks G-d to show him His glory (Exodus 33:22) , Talmud (Brachot 7a) tells us that G-d told Moshe, the greatest of prophets, that he could not understand the whole picture. Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik tells us that in a trying moment the question is not why is G-d doing this, but what are we supposed to learn and how are we supposed to grow this experience? It seems to me that the most basic message is for us to learn from the impact of Coronavirus is that we are not in control. With all of mankind’s technological advances, man is not all powerful and there are forces and circumstances in the world that are greater than us. And with all the careful planning in our lives and the trajectories that we set for ourselves, the lesson is that more important than what we become is how we respond to the challenges that are presented to us. Some people might be disappointed at having to cancel vacation plans, and some might even be dealing with significant loss of money, businesses and jobs, and we will probably all be challenged in the coming months in difference ways. The best we can do it to trust that the Almighty will help us through this, and that we will come out of it stronger and having learnt important life lessons. And while we are going through our challenges, reach out to someone who is quarantined, take the time to call a relative that we have not spoken to in a while, check in on an elderly person who may have restricted their activities, and try to feel the simcha of living up to the challenge.

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