I have never been one for forced fun. Many of my friends adore Purim spiels, fancy dress, murder mystery dinner parties, and I’ll begrudgingly participate, but if someone tells me I have to have fun I have a similar reaction to when a stranger on the street yells “cheer up love,” or “show us your smile.” The Talmud teaches us that just as when the month of Av enters one decreases joy, so too when the month of Adar enters one increases joy (Ta’anit 29a); there is, as the heavily quoted passage from Ecclesiastes goes, a time for everything.
What happens, though, when our time for joy is tainted by sadness, fear, trauma and mourning? For many of us, Purim marks a full cycle of festivals marked by Covid. It was the last time we gathered, sharing food, laughter and song, before we hastily withdrew from physical interactions. For many of us, (we can speculate at least that) Purim was the occasion where the coronavirus spread through our communities. What we thought (and were promised) would last a few weeks has been an entire year of closed synagogues, lonely Shabbatot, and loved ones who have died.
For those of you not familiar with the Liberal movement’s prayerbook, Siddur Lev Chadash, it has a section of prayers and readings on different themes, which it connects to the parashiyyot. The theme of this week’s parashah, Tetzaveh, is ‘Light’, which comes from its opening words:
‘You shall command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives, to cause a lamp to burn continually’ (Exodus 27:20).
Light is one of the most used metaphors, lent to hope, memory, knowledge, safety, truth, God. There have been endless descriptions of the coronavirus vaccines as the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. The pandemic has only accentuated those voices that say:
“Everything will be okay!”
“Everything happens for a reason!”
“On the bright side…”
“Be grateful for what you do have!”
In an article for Vogue published in late 2020, Catherine Renton describes the reactions of those around her when her mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer:
‘Even though my mum’s life expectancy was measured in months, loved ones showered me with phrases such as, “Don’t focus on the negativity” and, “Everything will be ok!”. They were well-meaning, but positive vibes could not save my mum’s life. When they tried to smother my pain with upbeat statements, it wasn’t supportive. It was toxic.’
This phenomenon is known as ‘toxic positivity’, the stressing of positive thinking at the expense of acknowledging feelings that could be perceived more negatively. I am not against always having hope, or taking pleasure in the small beauties and miracles of life. I also acknowledge that for many people, at different times in their lives, and for different reasons, hope is unreachable. The Biblical platitude “this too shall pass” feels nonsensical, possibly patronising, when in the depths of despair. Some things don’t pass; some things we have to decide to live with. Insisting that we always stay in the light and can never dwell in the darkness invalidates the very real and valid human emotions and experiences of sadness, pain, loneliness, grief and fear. The more someone is told to suppress their negative emotions and “think happy thoughts,” the more they are internalised as a personal failure. If you are unable to show these emotions, let alone process them, both the energy it takes to put on a front and the act of ignoring them itself will burn through your energy, at some point there won’t be any fuel left to ignite.
As we reach the end of this full cycle of altered festivals the governments of the UK have announced their timelines for bringing life “back to normal”. As we progress through these stages the narratives of hope and light will only grow stronger, but we must remember that there are some people for whom life may never return to normal, or for whom the old “normal” does not represent a beacon they wish to return to.
At Purim we are encouraged to dress up and to hide our true selves. As we emerge from the pandemic we should be wary of the majority narrative driving those who remain in pain into hiding, but instead use the lessons learnt to allow for a multitude of experiences to be expressed. This year, if the festival and the ‘roadmap to recovery’ offer you a chance to let go of anxiety and celebrate then that is wonderful. If, on the other hand, you are overwhelmed with anxiety about the future or overcome with grief about the past, then that is completely understandable, and we need to make a space for and support both in our communities.
Daisy Bogod LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.