Purim 5780: What My Coronavirus Quarantine Taught Me About The Power Of Loneliness
Like many around the world, I am in isolation as a precautionary measure after spending time at a conference in America. Hearing the megilla (huge thank you to Dion) from this vantage point at this time helped me see things from a different perspective.
There are so many in isolation, not just physically. I do not feel alone but I feel for those that do and everything about Purim is designed to help. We give charity to the poor to show others they are not alone (Matanot L'evyonim), send food gifts to others to increase friendship (Mishloach Manot), we read the megilla to appreciate a sense of the broader story of life, and we have a feast with others to forge common experience (mishte). This helps those that feel alone, but there is a healthiness to loneliness.
This is what Rav Soloveitchik calls ‘ontological loneliness’ and I do not only experience it in isolation. Between the constructs that divide so many like universalism and particularism, the secular and sacred, the community and the individual, right and left, I do not feel entirely at home in the black or the white, but the beautiful grey. Sometimes oscillating, sometimes harmonizing and sometimes stuck somewhere in between. I know there are others out there like me living in this liminal space and so I am never alone in this loneliness.
And then there is our national loneliness – we are what Bilaam called, ‘a people that dwells badad’ usually translated as alone. We are not alone, but lonely, together, because as the Bible begins, ‘it’s not good for man to be alone.’ Rather we are a people that are sometimes prepared to be lonely if it is the right thing to do. We do not need to go with the flow, we can have our unique place, playing our part in the symphony of humanity, even if others try to isolate us.
I always wondered why Esther wanted to unify our people and have them fast – fasting is such an individual exercise and she wasn’t even with them to see it. But besides the spiritual energy this act created, it was the feeling that everyone else is doing the same different deed for the same reason that strengthened them and propelled her to achieve her individual purpose and that of the collective.
So as I celebrate Purim today, in a different way to how I have ever celebrated it before, I cherish my individual, ontological and national loneliness, but I do not do it alone. And in this place of physical distance, like Esther in the palace, I feel even more connected.