The World Turned Upside Down - Ve'na'hafoch Hu

"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:

(א) וּבִשְׁנֵים֩ עָשָׂ֨ר חֹ֜דֶשׁ הוּא־חֹ֣דֶשׁ אֲדָ֗ר בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁ֨ה עָשָׂ֥ר יוֹם֙ בּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִגִּ֧יעַ דְּבַר־הַמֶּ֛לֶךְ וְדָת֖וֹ לְהֵעָשׂ֑וֹת בַּיּ֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֨ר שִׂבְּר֜וּ אֹיְבֵ֤י הַיְּהוּדִים֙ לִשְׁל֣וֹט בָּהֶ֔ם וְנַהֲפ֣וֹךְ ה֔וּא אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁלְט֧וּ הַיְּהוּדִ֛ים הֵ֖מָּה בְּשֹׂנְאֵיהֶֽם׃ (ב) נִקְהֲל֨וּ הַיְּהוּדִ֜ים בְּעָרֵיהֶ֗ם בְּכָל־מְדִינוֹת֙ הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ אֳחַשְׁוֵר֔וֹשׁ לִשְׁלֹ֣חַ יָ֔ד בִּמְבַקְשֵׁ֖י רָֽעָתָ֑ם וְאִישׁ֙ לֹא־עָמַ֣ד לִפְנֵיהֶ֔ם כִּֽי־נָפַ֥ל פַּחְדָּ֖ם עַל־כָּל־הָעַמִּֽים׃ (ג) וְכָל־שָׂרֵ֨י הַמְּדִינ֜וֹת וְהָאֲחַשְׁדַּרְפְּנִ֣ים וְהַפַּח֗וֹת וְעֹשֵׂ֤י הַמְּלָאכָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לַמֶּ֔לֶךְ מְנַשְּׂאִ֖ים אֶת־הַיְּהוּדִ֑ים כִּֽי־נָפַ֥ל פַּֽחַד־מָרְדֳּכַ֖י עֲלֵיהֶֽם׃ (ד) כִּֽי־גָ֤דוֹל מָרְדֳּכַי֙ בְּבֵ֣ית הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וְשָׁמְע֖וֹ הוֹלֵ֣ךְ בְּכָל־הַמְּדִינ֑וֹת כִּֽי־הָאִ֥ישׁ מָרְדֳּכַ֖י הוֹלֵ֥ךְ וְגָדֽוֹל׃ (פ) (ה) וַיַּכּ֤וּ הַיְּהוּדִים֙ בְּכָל־אֹ֣יְבֵיהֶ֔ם מַכַּת־חֶ֥רֶב וְהֶ֖רֶג וְאַבְדָ֑ן וַיַּֽעֲשׂ֥וּ בְשֹׂנְאֵיהֶ֖ם כִּרְצוֹנָֽם׃ (ו) וּבְשׁוּשַׁ֣ן הַבִּירָ֗ה הָרְג֤וּ הַיְּהוּדִים֙ וְאַבֵּ֔ד חֲמֵ֥שׁ מֵא֖וֹת אִֽישׁ׃

(1) And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened [ve-nahafoch hu], and the Jews got their enemies in their power. (2) Throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the Jews mustered in their cities to attack those who sought their hurt; and no one could withstand them, for the fear of them had fallen upon all the peoples. (3) Indeed, all the officials of the provinces—the satraps, the governors, and the king’s stewards—showed deference to the Jews, because the fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them. (4) For Mordecai was now powerful in the royal palace, and his fame was spreading through all the provinces; the man Mordecai was growing ever more powerful. (5) So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies. (6) In the fortress Shushan the Jews killed a total of five hundred men.

  • 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:

וְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי אָמַר: אֵלּוּ בְּנֵי אָדָם שֶׁיְּקָרִין הֵן בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, וּקְפוּיִין הֵן לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא. כִּי הָא דְּרַב יוֹסֵף בְּרֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי חֲלַשׁ וְאִיתְנְגִיד, כִּי הֲדַר, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אֲבוּהּ: מַאי חֲזֵית? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: עוֹלָם הָפוּךְ רָאִיתִי, עֶלְיוֹנִים לְמַטָּה, וְתַחְתּוֹנִים לְמַעְלָה. אָמַר לוֹ: בְּנִי, עוֹלָם בָּרוּר רָאִיתָ...

And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: These are people who are considered important [yekarim] in this world and unimportant [kefuyim] in the World-to-Come. This is like the incident involving Rav Yosef, son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who became ill and was about to expire. When he returned to good health, his father said to him: What did you see when you were about to die? He said to him: I saw an inverted world [olam hafuch]. Those above, i.e., those who are considered important in this world, were below, insignificant, while those below, i.e., those who are insignificant in this world, were above. He said to him: My son, you have seen a clear world.

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?