Lessons for a Covid world at Purim

(Photo: Unsplash/Denis Jung)

This time last year when Purim was coming up and Israel was deciding to ban the usual children's parades because of Covid, it was obvious that this was going to be a plague that ended all plagues and our lives were going to be changed forever.

It is no exaggeration to say that both in Israel and in many Jewish communities worldwide, Purim is by far the most popular children's festival – similar to how people in this country view Christmas. On Purim, we hold parades and children dress up, wear masks, and let rip!

The fact that the biblical Book of Esther (on which the Purim story is based) is fiendishly difficult with its myriad plots within plots, no mention of G-d's name and a welter of Persian loan words (including for the first time in Jewish history a word 'dat' for religion still in use to this day), makes it all the more interesting. Because what you learn as a child grows with you and develops and mutates in adulthood, together with your own experience of life.

So, this time last year, I suggested to my friend of 20 years whom I've taught French once a week without fail (including by Skype during a stint in Israel for two years), that I give her one of my two copies of Camus' book on the Shoah as plague, 'La Peste' (which won Camus the Nobel Prize for Literature) and which I first studied at school.

The beauty of studying a language which is not your own means that there are still more veils within veils to uncover than is normally the case in your own home tongue. And as Marion and I have gone through the book this year – certainly not the easiest to decipher – set as it is in the even more alien French Algeria of war-time, at a time when ambivalence reigned at the very least, we have now reached in the novel the enactment of a play intended to distract the protagonists from the plague which is raging in their country.

But what happens is that the leading man staggers about – is this part of the play, or something more? And in fact the staggering is no play-acting – the lead man is about to die of the real plague on stage, and suddenly collapses in a heap on the ground in front of the paying audience. And what do they do? They just get up and walk away as if nothing had happened.

La Peste is of course a morality tale and metaphor of the Shoah – and its heroes (if there are any) are based on the true story of a Protestant town in France which valiantly saved all its Jewish citizens and escapees as a defiant gesture against the Nazis and their French supporters, who – it appears – knew exactly what was going on.

So what has this to do with the Purim story and our present Covid time? Once again, Israel, the country with the largest number of Jewish citizens in the world, has to make up its mind, and so far at least, health officials are urging lockdown once again – because last time around Israel came out of lockdown too early and, like many other countries, paid the price.

As for Purim itself – it is a tale of the Jewish diaspora experience in 2nd Temple Persia (around 5th century BCE) in which a poor Jewish orphan called Esther ('secret') is married off at a young age to her one surviving cousin, Mordechai. But when it is discovered that the King of Persia is being advised to kill all the Jews because they are different, Esther marries this King, while hiding her origins.

She has been raised to be dutiful and silent, but suddenly Mordechai tells her to stop being passive and act. These most famous words have echoed all down the ages, and sadly have not always been heeded by Jewish leaderships. Often it has needed an 'Esther' to come out and act in the face of male inaction, and the fact that Esther is female speaks volumes of course, given the era of male power for which Persia is famed.

The famous words come from Chapter 4:14, where Mordechai says to Esther:

'Do not imagine that you will be able to escape in the King's palace any more than the rest of the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will [in any case] come to the Jews, while you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position!'

This is an amazing declamation by Mordechai. Even though the Jews and Judaism will never perish, he says, it is nevertheless up to us – whatever role we have in society, be it insignificant or magnificent, to step up to the plate and speak out when necessary. This is for our own individual sakes as part of G-d's partnership in the world. Leaving it to others, represented in this story by the 'male' powers-that-be, isn't always the best option. Silence isn't always golden and discretion isn't always the better part of valour.

Esther duly does what she is told, and then turns the tables on Mordechai and actually starts telling him what to do – the royal role taking over in a crisis, in order to transcend the limits of origins and gender when necessary.

We in the Jewish community have experienced these words with a special poignancy for the last twenty years at least. We intone them twice every year at Purim, when taking part in the Megillah readings, as we have struggled with growing antisemitism in diaspora, including unwarranted attacks on the State of Israel for simply existing.

We are all Esther – a tiny weak community who has been 'silenced' and has therefore turned in amongst ourselves, being famed as a load of disputatious and squabbling individuals who hardly ever agree on anything and often, as a result of useless and energy-draining infighting, don't always get things done as we should. We are, if you like, in the position of the poor female orphan (think Cinderella perhaps?) who has lots of opinions and yet isn't allowed to speak out.

But, if only we knew it, we are not only destined to invisibility – there comes a time and destiny for everyone – sometimes in the most unexpected and recondite of locations. I was first taught this properly at a religious seminary in Jerusalem some 40 years ago, and it is an injunction I've never forgotten.

Sometimes in our life, a life in which we generally mask our true feelings and go with the flow, the truth has to come out, and sometimes it is 'buggins turn', whether we like it or not.

So at this time of despair and yet hope, with the vaccines working it seems in miraculous ways in order to allow us to live our lives once again, and when it is probable that masks will become a part of our lives ongoing, let us recall that the world only seems to be what it is, that heroism consists of doing one's duty at the right time (not always easy to decipher or to carry out) and that courting popularity is by no means the name of the game.

And how will we carry out the injunction to hear the compulsory Purim reading this year? Many of us will do it by Zoom – and this way we will truly be joined up to all the Jews in the world, still struggling to cast off their lowly orphan existence and to morph from their unbeloved status into the royal Esther who has been much heralded on stage and screen, being Handel's first ever Oratorio, based on a play by that greatest of French classical writers, Jean Racine.

You can see here an extract of the Oratorio in a rare performance sung in the original Hebrew libretto.

For as Camus states at the end of his amazing morality play about the Shoah: 'The plague at source never dies out. It can remain under the surface for decades ... waiting patiently ... until one day, in order to teach humanity a lesson, the plague will once again be aroused...'

What Purim and its modern version in Camus' 'La Peste' teach us is that the lesson of life is eternal vigilance, and this is what – if anything – we have had to all come to terms with this year from one Purim celebration to the next.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.