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On facing up to Purim

Mi She Nichnas Adar - Marbin Basimcha

Whenever Adar arrives, the fun begins

It feels a little odd advocating fun and games when I am not able to join you this Shabbat. All our communities in Asia are challenged by this Coronavirus: Kehilat Shanghai has taken to holding virtual Shabbats with their members who are scattered around the world and have not been able to return to China. In Tokyo, the Jewish Community of Japan have cancelled all events bar Shabbat services. In Hong Kong, where the schools have been closed since Chinese New Year, they are still holding Shabbat dinners but have started giving everyone their own serving utensils. This is very similar to our own, sensible, approach at the UHC: making the small changes that minimise the risks but let us continue as much as possible with our Jewish lives. Because the month of Adar is here regardless, and it is time for the fun to begin.

Adar is the last month of the Jewish year and it is the one that doubles in a leap year (not this year). What makes it so joyous? In one word: Purim. Around the full moon of Adar, which arrives in less than a fortnight, we laugh and sing as we celebrate the happy festival. Purim is coming! We reread the book of Esther, which tells of our victory over the wicked villain, Haman. And by the end of the story, the crisis is averted, and those who wished our downfall are themselves annihilated. Distress becomes salvation.

In the toughest times imaginable, Jews have celebrated Purim too. In the Warsaw ghetto in 1941, Kalonymus Kalman, the Rebbe of Piaseczno told his followers: “Purim and Yom Kippur are related: Yom Kippur can be read as Yom K’Purim - a day like Purim. Just as we fast on Yom Kippur, so do we celebrate Purim. It is not only when a person is full of joy that he must have simcha. Rather even if you are broken-hearted, you should follow the law and let a spark of “simcha”, a spark of joy, enter his heart. The Hasidic rabbi Nachman of Bratslav is also famous for saying: “mitzvah gedolah l’hiyot b’simcha tamid” - it’s a mitzvah, a commandment, always to be happy. It may even be the toughest commandment.

A year ago we celebrated Purim together at the UHC, and we also took Noam to Chesed El for their Purim festivities as well. I read for them a Purim spiel in the style of Dr Seuss. Noam was a little Napoleon riding on his horse, his mum Shelly. A couple of weeks earlier Noam had successfully gone through his kidney operation, and little did we know what further calamities would beset us before Pesach that year. We were feeling optimistic and happy to have a chance to celebrate the festival of Purim. It is an opportunity to let your hair down and dress up - and not one to be spurned or missed, if at all possible, even in moments of crisis.

Becoming a father to Noam has taught me many things - including that parents learn from their children as much as they teach them anything. But one thing has struck me this year more than all: how a baby can stay happy despite everything that is going on around him. Noam’s vitality and joie de vivre has been remarkable, and this has surely powered both him and his parents to reach where we are today.

But with Purim around the corner, this is no time to be looking back. It is time to start baking hamantaschen, to prepare some gifts - mishloah manot - for those less fortunate than ourselves, and of course to make ready our Purim costumes. You’ll have to wait and see in a future video just what Shelly has prepared for Noam to wear this year!

It’s the rhythms of the Jewish year which keep us moving forward. The necessities of the life-cycle, the urgencies of births and bar mitzvahs, weddings and burials. The circle of the Torah brings us to the same Torah portions, week in and week out, but we are not the same. Each year we bring to them a different face, and if we live full lives, that’s shivim panim Latorah - seventy faces for the Torah - the Torah has seventy faces.

Each one of us has a different face - and there’s a blessing that one says when you see a large crowd of us. One who sees seventy Jews together should say: “Blessed is Gods who knows all secrets; for their opinions are not similar to one another, and their faces are not similar to one another.” (BBerachot 58a) It’s another reminder of our remarkable unity as a Jewish people - despite the old joke about our quarrels, the Jew alone on the desert island who builds two synagogues, one whose door would never be darkened.

At Purim we add to these faces by covering ourselves with masks. And yet, like good actors, by hiding ourselves we may be able to reveal and uncover our hidden face from within. The Hebrew word for face, “panim” is almost identical to the word “pnim” meaning inside or innermost. And perhaps it’s true that the expressions of the face are the key to understanding what lies within us. At Purim under cover we are free to express ourselves.

So face up to Purim, smile more during the month of Adar. Things are going to get better, and even as our faces add wrinkles, let them be formed from creases of joy and lines of laughter. Take a moment this Shabbat to consider your own face, if it’s been a tough week, it’s now passed. And enjoy this Shabbat evening and the wonderful music and community that the UHC are so fortunate to gather.

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