By Rabbi Aviva Richman
As we start the month of Adar this year, it doesn’t quite seem like the surge of more joy it’s supposed to feel like. Purim will mark almost a full year of life under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. As much as being a time of joy, it is a moment to acknowledge the shocking loss of life, the toll of illness and financial hardship, and the gloom of loneliness and isolation that many months of quarantining and social distancing have caused.
How do all of these feelings coexist with Purim, usually a time of joyful celebration in community?
Even though Purim is about abounding in joy, the megillah itself isn't monolithically joyful. It is a drama of extremes, and most of the story transpires on the verge of disaster. Fear and uncertainty are right at home in the rhythm of this holiday. In particular, the Fast of Esther (Ta’anit Esther) that we commemorate the day before Purim is a time on the calendar that holds the intensity of this darker side of Purim. On Ta’anit Esther, we relive the most intense part of the Purim story, as Esther faces the prospect of entering into the king's chamber alone, with her own local fear of surviving this particular encounter, together with the weight of the larger uncertainty about the fate of her people.
Most years, the day before Purim gets overlooked in preparation—putting final touches on a costume, creating gift baskets, making hamantashen, etc. This year, though, we should mark Ta’anit Esther as the important day it is in its own right.
Esther’s immediate and perhaps instinctual response to her fear and uncertainty is to call for gathering:
Megillat Ester 4:16
לֵךְ֩ כְּנ֨וֹס אֶת־כָּל־הַיְּהוּדִ֜ים הַֽנִּמְצְאִ֣ים בְּשׁוּשָׁ֗ן וְצ֣וּמוּ עָ֠לַי וְאַל־תֹּאכְל֨וּ וְאַל־תִּשְׁתּ֜וּ שְׁלֹ֤שֶׁת יָמִים֙ לַ֣יְלָה וָי֔וֹם גַּם־אֲנִ֥י וְנַעֲרֹתַ֖י אָצ֣וּם כֵּ֑ן וּבְכֵ֞ן אָב֤וֹא אֶל־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹֽא־כַדָּ֔ת וְכַאֲשֶׁ֥ר אָבַ֖דְתִּי אָבָֽדְתִּי׃
"Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!”
Esther tells the Jewish people to gather together in order to fast and pray that they will all live. The key verb in this verse is “gather.” When we are feeling scared and alone, gathering is our powerful way to respond to that fear and isolation.
On the surface, this aspect of Ta’anit Esther feels completely out of touch with the last year. Part of what has made this year so destabilizing is that we have faced unimaginable local and global catastrophe at a time when we cannot physically gather together.
But this has also been a year of finding new ways to heed Esther’s charge, to feel connected and pray for a better future. For the past half a year, I wake up every morning with sixty people online for a short song and teaching about the Amidah. So many of us have been to Zoom shiva and Zoom baby-namings this past year. At Hadar, we came together with nearly a thousand people on Tisha b’Av to reflect and mourn through ritual and learning. We are finding ways to gather strength through connection even when there isn’t much to be found.
As we “gather together” in a virtual mode for a special day or learning this Ta’anit Esther, let this be a time to give voice to the intensity of this year, to reflect on what we are praying for, and to articulate what we hope for in the coming months.
In a year of so many deaths and so few in-person minyanim, we will learn about Kaddish from Rabbi Elie Kaunfer and hear a new melody for Kaddish written by Joey Weisenberg. In a year when there was so much more at stake in the marginalization and isolation of incarcerated populations, we’ll hear from Rabbi Gabe Seed, a prison chaplain, and learn how to be a supportive presence.
לך כנוס את כל היהודים / Go gather all the Jews
Even as we are so aware of how we haven’t been able to gather together, Ta’anit Esther offers us an opportunity to sink deeply into prayers we are holding in our hearts and to appreciate adaptive modes of connecting. Perhaps even more than Purim, I am craving a meaningful Ta’anit Esther this year, to reflect, to pray, and to unearth the power of community we share.
Rabbi Aviva Richman is a Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar, and has been on the faculty since 2010. A graduate of Oberlin College, she studied in the Pardes Kollel and the Drisha Scholars' Circle and was ordained by Rabbi Danny Landes. She is completing a doctorate in Talmud at NYU. Interests include Talmud, Halakhah, Midrash and gender, and also a healthy dose of niggunim.