Given that we just celebrated Purim and the world is currently in turmoil due to the coronavirus outbreak and response, I think it might be worthwhile to examine if any connection can be drawn and inspiration for salvation found. After all, Purim marked the time when the Jewish world was saved from a pending national calamity and we would be well advised to learn any lessons we can to avert the current crisis we face.
This introspection, though, faces two major roadblocks. First, by all accounts there is no true prophecy in our time and anyone’s attempts to attribute a major world event to this or that cause is misguided to say the least. Second, the story of Purim seems to be of a vastly different nature. The threat then came from a human being with evil intent, not a virus lacking free will. Back then, disaster could be averted through clever political intrigue, yet there are no simple ways to outsmart a virus.
However, given these limitations I think a powerful lesson can still be drawn from Purim and that is from the miracle no one talks about. We tend to view the miracle of Purim as God acting behind the scenes, inspiring Mordechai and Esther to take the appropriate and necessary steps, and guiding the complete turnaround from the Jews being hated and threatened to being exalted. Really though, I think the greatest miracle happened at the very beginning: Mordechai and Esther realizing that they needed a miracle to survive and that the existential threat the Jews faced was spiritual as well as physical.
The Jews during the time of Purim had every reason to put off fasting, teshuva and every other measure to avert the decree. They could argue that the decree would not be taken seriously since Achashverosh invited them to his party, consulted their wise men regarding Vashti and the decree wasn’t supposed to take place for 11 months. Yet they recognized that regardless of the reasons behind the decree, their response needed to be immediate because it was so severe and unprecedented.
The coronavirus has taken a tremendous toll on the entire world, spanning all realms of human experience—our health, our economies and our social interactions. But I fear that the spiritual effects are the most frightening. Within a few short weeks we have witnessed the effective churban of thousands of shuls, yeshivas and day schools. Whenever our people faced existential threats throughout our history, being murdered left and right, they almost always had tefilah b’tzibur available until their tragic deaths. And yet we lack it now and don’t yearn for it back.
I’m not qualified to question any of the measures taken by healthcare professionals and government agencies that forced the shutdown of our Jewish institutions. But I’m qualified to observe that the loss is tremendous and that very few people in addition to praying for the health, safety and security of society are also extremely engrossed in teshuva and yearning for the return of our public prayers. While the loss of “amen yeheshmei rabba” may not have factored into the decisions to close shuls, it should certainly factor into our response.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have many faults and have not made it to a Shacharit minyan on a regular basis for the past few months. But at least I have a sense of what I was losing out on. Imagine if just a few months ago the government ordered the shutdown of all shuls and yeshivas based on the growing threat of anti-Semitism. Would we agree right away given that the threat of anti-Semitism is definitely real and growing? And even if we did, would we be comfortable with the decision and agree that it was the best one given the circumstances we find ourselves in? Also, we put ourselves at risk every time we need to buy groceries at overcrowded supermarkets. But that’s different, you might say. We obviously need food to survive. How many of us, though, think about our spiritual nutrition and how desperately we need it to survive?
We need to pray for the health and recovery of those who are ill. We need to pray that society will overcome this tremendous economic blow. I’m asking in addition that we also pray for the recognition of the tremendous and frightening spiritual loss we have experienced and yearn for tefilah b’tzibur once again.
Ari Blinder is a member of Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park, New Jersey.