Purim and the Coronavirus – Shabbat Zakhor 5780

Today is Shabbat Zakhor.  We have a special Torah reading and Haftarah for the Shabbat before Purim.  It is the only Torah reading which, according to Jewish law, individuals are required to hear.  It is that important.  It begins, Zakhor.

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

Deuteronomy 25:17-18

The Torah is emphatic about the requirement to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.  Punctuating this command are the words lo tishkakh – “Do not forget.”

What is the connection to Purim?  Haman, the wicked villain of the Purim story, is identified in the Megillah as an Aggagite.  That is to say, a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite King whom we will read about in the haftarah.

The story of Purim is set approximately 900 years after the Amalekites attacked our ancestors in the wilderness.  Deuteronomy’s warning was still unfulfilled.  

But the message extends beyond the literal Amalekites.  Amalek can appear in many guises, and has done so throughout history.  

What is the particular quality of Amalek’s wickedness?  The Torah identifies it explicitly.  They went after the weak and famished stragglers on the periphery of the of the nation.  They targeted those least able to defend themselves.

In the story of Purim, the Jews are an obscure, exiled people living in a foreign land.  They have no power or influence in the court.  When Haman plots to murder every last Jew throughout the Empire, he is emulating the modus operandi of his ancestors.  The Jews of Persia are like the famished and weary stragglers in the wilderness.

At the end of the story, Mordechai and Esther send out edicts throughout the Empire, instructing the Jewish people to observe the 14th and 15th days of Adar as annual holidays of celebration.

It is not merely an excuse for a party, however.  There is meaning and purpose behind the festival of Purim.  The story of persecution and deliverance is one that has repeated throughout our history.  There have been countless Haman’s and Amalekites who have targeted the Jewish people.  

But we are a people that does not forget, and this is, in no small part, a primary reason for our survival.  While our calendar has many days of sadness and mourning, we also have days for celebration.  That is what Purim is.  Purim stands in for all of those times in our history when we have been targeted by those stronger and more powerful than us.  It is the most “realistic” book in the Bible.  God is hidden, without a single explicit reference.  Similarly, our experience of reality requires us to look beyond the empirical to find God’s Presence.

I would like to read to you a short article that appeared in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s daily bulletin on March 9, 1945.  It was posted in Gladbach, Germany.

Belated Purim services were held here yesterday in a castle belonging to Dr. Joseph Goebels by front-line troops who were too busy fighting last week to pause for the traditional observances.

Capt. Manual Poliakeff of Baltimore, a Jewish chaplain, carefully arranged the candles over a swastika-bedecked bookcase in Goebbels’ main dining room. Pfc, Arnold Reich of Meadville, Pa. and Corp. Martin Willen of Baltimore assisted the chaplain.

The services were attended by a large crowd which filled the vast room. Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers were in the audience, and the Jews explained to their Christian comrades about Haman and why it was so fitting that Purim services should be held in a castle belonging to Goebbels.

I can only imagine the intensity of emotions that were felt by those who found themselves celebrating Purim in Goebbels mansion.  The message of Purim is that, in a dark and dangerous world, we have to celebrate life whenever we can.  

Israel, despite being an incredibly stressful, high-pressured place to live, has adopted this approach.  It is routinely ranked as being on of the happiest places to live, according to the World Happiness Index.  In 2019, it was ranked 13th, having fallen two places.

It is not what we expect from a country that deals with terrorism, rockets, and regular threats of annihilation from Iran.  But it is also a nation whose citizens know that they have got to keep living, that they cannot dwell only on the bad things.

This year, Purim takes on a different tone as we find ourselves in the midst of an emerging global pandemic.

The Coronavirus is neither Haman, nor the Amalekites.  But like them, it is particularly dangerous to vulnerable populations: the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

Like in the Megillah, deliverance will come through the well thought out actions of human beings: doctors, nurses, public health officials, and scientists.  But we also have roles to play.  Before Esther went to see the King, she asked the Jewish people of Shushan to fast and pray with her for three days.  There was an important role for the “non-experts” to play.

Jewish law holds a person accountable for even inadvertent harm caused by our bodies.  I am always responsible for what my body does, even while I am sleeping.

Maimonides codifies it in his law code, the Mishneh Torah.  He says that, as far as liability for causing an injury to another person is concerned, there is no difference if a person strikes someone by hand, injures them by throwing a stone or shooting an arrow, or “spits or sneezes and causes damage with his spittle or mucus while it is being propelled by his power… [A person] is liable for all of them, as if he had caused the damage with his hands.”  (Chovel Umeizik 6:10)

These rules are repeated in the Shulchan Arukh as normative Jewish law.  

Maimonides and the Shulchan Arukh were from the 12th and 16th centuries, respectively, so they can be forgiven for not knowing about germs.  It is striking that they conceive of a person causing inadvertent harm through spittle and mucus.  Although for them, the worry is that somebody might slip and injure themself.

We now are aware, of course, that illness can be transmitted through the same bodily fluids.  Extending the principle, we find that we are halakhically obligated to follow precautions of the sort that the CDC and the county health department are recommending.  It is an issue of Jewish law.

Parents, you can tell your kids that “the Rabbi says you have to wash your hands.”

We sent out an email on Thursday in which we asked members of the community to take responsibility for each other in specific ways.  I would like to repeat them now:

  • If you have—or recently had—symptoms of illness, including fever, coughing, runny nose, sore throat, stomach bug, vomiting, or any other sickness, DO NOT come to shul. 
  • If you have an underlying immune condition or chronic heart or lung problem, you should also probably stay away.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after contact with common locations like door handles or railings.
  • If washing your hands is not possible, please make use of the alcohol-based hand sanitizer.  It is not as effective as good hand washing.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • If you need to cough or sneeze, please do so into a disposable tissue. If none is available, sneeze into your elbow. Then go wash your hands.
  • We are on “Elbow Bump Protocol.”  Head nodding is fine.  No hand shaking.  
  • Do not directly kiss the Torah or Mezuzot.
  • If you are in any way involved with food preparation or serving, always wash your hands thoroughly beforehand and use the disposable gloves available in the kitchen.

At Kiddush:

  • Don’t use your hands.  Only use a serving utensil.
  • Please keep an eye on children, and gently remind them not to use their hands.

Most of this seems like common sense, but we tend to get sloppy and lax when we are not paying direct attention.

Our joy on Purim this year is diminished a bit, both because of the extra precautions that we are forced to take, and more importantly by the awareness of those who have died from this disease, those whose lives have been disrupted in profound ways, and those who will continue to get sick.

To the Rabbis of the Talmud, illness was more mysterious than for us.  Humanity had little to no ability to cure illness.  A person who got sick was pretty much in God’s hands.  After the death of a colleague’s child, Reish Lakish offers a series of prayers on behalf of the deceased, the mourners, those who have come to comfort the mourners.  He even offers a prayer on behalf of the entire Jewish people.

Master of the worlds, redeem and save, rescue and deliver Your people, Israel, from the pestilence and from the sword…  and from all types of afflictions that suddenly erupt and come to the world. Before we call You are already responding. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who halts the plague.

Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 8b

We pray for healing for those who are ill and for health and wellness for us, our communities, and all people.

May we all have a happy and healthy Purim.

One thought on “Purim and the Coronavirus – Shabbat Zakhor 5780

  1. Pingback: Purim and the Coronavirus – Shabbat Zakhor 5780 – God in the Max

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s