The last big public event we went to as a family was in March 2020, when my daughter and I got decked out in matching costumes for Purim at Beth Shalom — I as the Shadow Man from Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog,” and Etta as Celia Facilier, the Shadow Man’s daughter from the Disney TV show “Descendants” (if you’re confused right now, just Google it.)
That was Monday night, March 9. I remember the feeling in the room and the upbeat-but-uneasy looks from some of the other parents and congregants; a nervous “haha, boy things sure are weird in the world with this new virus, huh?” vibe that seemed to be unsure, but not afraid. We saw the news in China. We heard the stories from Seattle. None of it computed — because none of us had any idea what was coming. It was a lighthearted evening — we won a prize for “best family costume” — before a long, dark night. On March 11, the WHO declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. On March 13, the president declared a national emergency, and, in short order, every state went into lockdown.
The next two years would be marked with struggle and suffering. Isolation and uncertainty. And death and illness. The rhythm of life fundamentally changed. The way we work, the way we socialize, the way we pray and the way we dress all have changed due to the pandemic. But after social distancing, and masking, and getting vaccines and boosters, we seem to be mostly through to the other side.
Last week, on March 16, my daughter and I returned to Beth Shalom for a very public Purim celebration for the first time in two years. It was indoors (and masked), but the familiar rhythms and feelings of the service were there — it wasn’t in isolation and over Zoom. People hugged and kids got balloon animals and there were hamantaschen. Etta dressed as Isabela Madrigal from “Encanto” (you probably don’t have to Google it.) It felt like an end — a pair of Purim celebrations bookending a long and mournful middle.
In Parshat Shmini we learn two disparate ideas: that Aaron’s sons were killed for bringing “strange fire” before the mizbe’ach, the altar; and the rules for kosher and unkosher animals. In Leviticus 11:42, we get the line, “Anything that crawls on its belly … you shall not eat.” The word belly here is gihon, and if you were to look in a Sefer Torah, you would find that the vav in gihon is enlarged. This is because, according to Masoritic scribal notes, the vav is the middle letter in the entire Torah — a book of more than 300,000 letters.
There’s a small lesson here: When we’re in the middle of something, we don’t notice it. Middles, unless otherwise announced in some manner (like a giant vav), go by unnoticed. They feel like just another day of drudgery and toil — and the pandemic felt especially toilsome and bitter and unending.
Far be it for me to proclaim, with my lack of medical knowledge or epidemiological terminology, that the pandemic is “over.” But from Purim 2020 to Purim 2022, we have certainly passed through some kind of boundary denoting a shift. It is worthwhile, I think, to take stock at this moment in our lives of all that we have been through, and to ask: How have we grown? How have we changed? Where did we fail, or succeed? And what are we grateful for that we must embrace a little more in the years to come? PJC
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the spiritual leader for Brith Sholom Jewish Center of Erie, Pennsylvania. He also serves as interim director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah at Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.