"What if the world suddenly flipped upside down?" asked a curious Quora contributor just over 4 years ago.
This question was categorized as a "Hypothetical Planetary Science Scenario," but last year alone has taught us that this is not a hypothetical scenario, nor is it strictly a physics question. In North America, just around the time we read from the Scroll of Esther on Purim last year, we began to see our own worlds - our ways of life, our relationships, and our fates - suddenly flipped on their heads, demanding new technological and emotional tools to cope with new realities.
And with the same surprise, one year or two years or more down the line, our worlds may be flipped back over again, though we can't know what will revert back to the way it was and what of this new reality will accompany us forward.
The Jews of Shushan in the Purim story, too, knew that the world can be topsy-turvy, threatening life at one moment and affirming it in the next. The story focuses on the move from one to another:
- What are the ways "the opposite happened" [ve-nahafoch hu] on Purim as described here in the Megillah?
- How did the Jews react? What do you think was positive about their reaction, and what do you think they should have done differently?
- Throughout the pandemic - from the very beginning and being in the middle of the storm, to acclimating to "the new normal," to the vaccine roll out - how have our lives been turned upside down, and how have we responded in positive and destructive ways to our own "ve-nahafoch hu" moments?
The characters of Purim and their opposing fortunes are suggested earlier in the Torah, known as the blueprint of the universe in the eyes of the Midrash. Similarly, though this might be the first time many of us are experiencing such a destructive and lifestyle-altering pandemic, this has happened before and, unfortunately, by design, may very well happen again. This text challenges us to ask:
- Whether in the history books or in our traditional canon, what texts or stories have we drawn on to make sense of our experiences over the past 10-12 months? In which of these have we been able to most clearly see ourselves?
- What have we learned about ourselves and our communities over the past 10-12 months, including our individual and collective strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and needs? And how can we take at least one of these lessons forward with us when, in the months or years again, we once again see an Olam Hafuch, a flipped world?
During this time, may we be inspired by the vision of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, a 3rd century CE Talmudic Sage who on occasion was able to negotiate with the angel of death. His son's near-encounter with death and the World-to-Come gave him perspective on the present world we learners inhabit:
1) Have you ever had the experience of feeling that someone or something was very important, only to realize later on that it or they are really not so central? Can you give an example?
2) As you think about what has changed during the pandemic, and what you have lost, what do you hope will change back? Are there any things that used to exist in your life that no longer seem so important?
3) At the end of this story, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi tells his son that that his vision of an upside down world is really the clearest possible picture. Now that we have had our world flipped upside down, what aspects of life feel clearer to you than before? What feels more confusing?