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Thought for the Day: Purim 2020

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Purim in Covid – the power of a handshake

We appreciate something most of all when there is a danger that we’ll lose it or when we’ve lost it already.

This truism is embodied in the Jewish Festival of Purim, which we celebrate tonight and tomorrow.

2,400 years ago, there was an attempt in ancient Persia to annihilate every single Jewish man, woman and child. Our miraculous survival has prompted us to appreciate our existence. 

On Purim, we celebrate the precious lives we have by engaging selflessly with others. We warmly great one and all, give generously to charity and deliver parcels of food to friends and to the needy.  We recognise that the gift of life is only of value if we do something worthy with it. 

This year, our Purim celebrations are affected by the Coronavirus, as you would expect for a festival which is so dependent on communal interaction.

In this context, over the past few days I have come to appreciate the power of the handshake. Finding myself in the midst of large crowds, it has been a challenge, on account of the Coronavirus, to refrain from naturally extending my hand. I’ve been struck by the significant difference that the absence of a handshake makes.

Apparently, this gesture began two and a half millennia ago in ancient Greece. By extending their empty right hands, people showed that they were not holding weapons and bore no ill will. 

Over the course of time, a handshake became a sign of honour and integrity. In Western society, the handshake precedes discussion and seals the deal.  Your handshake is your bond. 

Who can forget the handshakes between Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk and Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev?

And then there was President Theodore Roosevelt, who shook the hands of a record 8,510 people at a White House reception on 1 January 1907.

The Hebrew word for ‘friend’, ‘yedid’, literally means ‘two hands’. I believe that, right now, with the increasing absence of hands joining hands, we need to appreciate friendship all the more.  

Viruses do not recognise border-lines or nationalities. All of humankind is one. 

The Covid-19 epidemic should prompt us to value life, to appreciate the simplest of human interactions and, in the spirit of Purim, to reach out to the elderly, the frail, the housebound and those in quarantine who now rely on our consideration and compassion. 

We might not be able to shake their hands, but we must ensure that they feel the warmth of our humanity.