Almost all of the holidays on the Jewish calendar mark a moment in the history of our people. Passover is the time we gained our freedom; Shavuot the time we received the Torah. Sukkot reminds us of the temporary and fragile life we lead, that we are under the protection of a Greater Force and we need His protection. Without it, we are vulnerable as if we lived without real shelter. Chanukah is our time to remember our victory over one enemy; Tisha B’Av the time to mourn our defeat by others (and by ourselves).
Purim is perhaps the lightest and easiest of holidays to celebrate. We are commanded to be happy, infused with the joy made more poignant because the holiday carries an underlying promise. It is a commitment that at the worst of times, God will protect the people of Israel. Purim is a children's holiday that adults love. It's the simplest of tales. An inane king led to evil by a sinister advisor is about to destroy the Jewish people in the kingdom of Persia, in the city of Shushan. The stupid king, too busy with his personal life, is led into issuing a decree to kill all the Jews. Meanwhile, back at the palace, the king actually marries a woman from the very people he has promised to destroy.
And, if that isn't suspenseful enough, the new queen's uncle overhears a plot to kill the king, jumps in and saves the day and gains the gratitude of the king! The plans of the evil minister are thwarted; the Jewish people of Shushan saved!
It’s a wonderful story. The children love it and focus on the heroes. The adults are encouraged to remove themselves from the pressures of life, to relax, to act like children by thinking you can blot out evil by making noise. It works for a bit of time to take us from the pressures of life. As the story is read aloud, each word heard carefully throughout the country and around the world, adults and children alike make noise, laugh, stomp their feet and "remove" the name of the evil minister, Haman, and cheer again and again, as Mordechai and Esther save the day.
I don’t think I’ve ever spent Purim away from my children. They might go to another place to hear the megillah (the story of Purim) read, but we were always together as a family for the main meal, for giving baskets of food to friends, and for just being together. Until this year, when Elie is stationed on the border.
He called Thursday during the day before the holiday arrived, and again Thursday night after we’d returned from hearing the megillah and as we were sitting down to eat. The army has arranged for someone to read the megillah there on the base, but it was clear in his voice that he was lonely. It was one of those calls I haven’t had in a while – where he’s got nothing that he really wants to say, but he’s just reaching out. It's something in his voice that calls out to me; nothing that he puts in words.
"How's it going?" is all he says but the message comes through. Maybe I'm wrong and hearing something that isn't there.
"Fine," I answer cheerfully. "We're sitting down to dinner. Grandma and grandpa are here. What's new with you?"
"Nothing." It's the one word answers that give it away.
It meant that I had to talk. I told him about whatever I could think about; he spoke to his grandmother and grandfather who were visiting. We talked about the new phones. What's happening up north. Plans for Passover (which is a month away). Anything to keep the conversation going.
He told me about his plans for this coming week and yet another short course the army was sending him to, and finally he said he had to go. He didn't sound much better; I felt much worse. My baby is lonely, I wanted to cry inside...but of course, that's silly. My baby is 20-years-old, a soldier, a man. He's not suffering and he's with friends. He's fine...I just felt sad and lonely myself (even in a house with family and friends).
The next morning, we went to dear friends who also happen to be relatives now that our daughter married their son. It was nice to have the families together and since they live only a block away, it’s something we do relatively often. My second son is about the same age as their second son - they get along very well. My two younger kids get spoiled by all the attention of being relatively little in a house where the kids are all grown up.
My older daughter’s father-in-law read the megillah in the beautiful tunes of his Libyan heritage and then we sat down to an amazing meal of stuffed turkey, tons of side dishes and salads. A feast. A perfect meal with friends and family, and then my phone rang. It was Elie again so I quickly answered and stepped outside.
"How's it going?" he asks again. And again I know he's lonely.
It's killing me inside because asking if he is lonely isn't going to help. I give him a brief rundown of what is happening and ask what's going on there.
"Nothing." The one word answers. We spoke for a few minutes. Overall, he’s fine and happy. They again heard the megillah reading on the base. He’s coming home to sleep Monday night so that he can get to this course on Tuesday morning more easily. He’ll be home again for the coming weekend. I’m not sure what’s in his mind; whether he has crystallized the concept of feeling lonely (or if it is my projecting into his voice what isn’t there).
Either way, it is a part of being a soldier (and a soldier’s mother). They will feel a part of all that is happening and not need family as much and then for a brief time, even on a base with friends, they will need to touch home. I accept that it has nothing to do with his overall enjoyment of the army, his overall commitment to what he is doing, and I also accept that there isn’t much I can do about it. Whether his loneliness is real or imagined, I’ll use it as an excuse to call him a little more and hope I hit a time when he can answer. I’ll try to listen if he wants to talk, and I’ll bake cookies and brownies so he can take them with him when he comes home briefly on Monday.
Beyond that, I’ll accept. Accept that the loneliness is the flip side of all that he is experiencing and all that he is gaining. It even has the added benefit of making him want to be home more and appreciating the home and the family that he has.
I spoke to him again this evening after the Sabbath had ended and this time he talked about his new phone, the reception he gets there, the complexity of the phone. He wants to call the phone company and see if they can activate his old phone so that he doesn't risk breaking the new one while on base.
In other words, another minor crisis avoided – he’s sounding like Elie again. Maybe he needed to put the holiday behind him.
I hope the next holiday, Passover, will see us together.
Side note on Purim:
Though I wrote of the "story" of Purim and the tale of Purim, it is important to point out we are actually talking about an historical fact, not fiction. Proof? Proof is in confirmation found a few decades ago here in Israel when Israel helped save thousands of Ethiopian Jews by bringing them to Israel. The Ethiopian community had developed with no outside contact, lost to the Jewish people of Europe and the Eastern countries for centuries.
When they arrived in Israel, the rabbis sat down with their Ethiopian counterparts and began comparing the Judaism as practiced in Ethiopia as opposed to the Judaism that Jews had been practicing either in Europe or in the Arab countries from which they emigrated to Israel decades ago. Holiday for holiday, they compared them until they got to the Jewish month of Adar.
The Ethiopian rabbis, known as Keses, told of a great day of fasting and mourning that took place...on exactly the day we celebrate Purim. How could this be? Why do you mourn?
The king of Shushan issued a decree that all the Jews of Shushan would be killed on that day. When the plot was uncovered and overturned, a second edict was sent out canceling the first one and ordering the protection of the Jews. Sadly, the second edict never reached the Jews of Ethiopia and so, for centuries, they mourned a massacre that had been avoided. Today in Israel, the Ethiopian Jews join all Israelis in celebrating the miracle of Purim.