Venahafoch hu: Surviving, Adapting and Thriving Despite Covid-19
As we again approach the holiday of Purim, all I can think about is Venahafoch hu, it was turned upside down. Last Purim at Hillel Day School and around Detroit the entire community was gathering together joyfully to celebrate the holiday season as we always have. We knew about the virus spreading into the United States, but there were no known cases in Michigan, and we would have never imagined that our world would be completely upended by Covid-19 just a few days later.
Venahafoch hu is used in the Megillah to describe how all of Haman’s efforts to destroy the Jewish people ultimately lead to its salvation:
וּבִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ הוּא־חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם בּוֹ אֲשֶׁר הִגִּיעַ דְּבַר־הַמֶּלֶךְ וְדָתוֹ לְהֵעָשׂוֹת בַּיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר שִׂבְּרוּ אֹיְבֵי הַיְּהוּדִים לִשְׁלוֹט בָּהֶם וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁלְטוּ הַיְּהוּדִים הֵמָּה בְּשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם׃
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, and the Jews got their enemies in their power. (Esther 9:1)
Venahafoch hu: We have faced tremendous loss due to this horrible virus, yet it has not destroyed us as a community. It has propelled us to shift in the direction of learning how to be more flexible, more adaptive, to survive and even thrive despite extremely challenging conditions.
A week after Purim last year, we were all at home adjusting to remote learning. Like so many other schools, we spent much of the summer strategizing and planning for opening our doors in the fall. We have been blessed at Hillel Day School with both in-person instruction and a remote model all year long. As we enter this Purim and the one year mark of the pandemic, we’ve learned that the key to responding to this venahafoch hu was our ability as a school to be flexible, creative and collaborative.
Approaching a Purim that will look different and continue a year of adapting holiday celebrations to meet COVID guidelines, with many activities still online or in much smaller groups, I reflect on how the Jewish people have constantly had to adapt to moments of unexpected challenge or change. As we discuss with our seventh graders, when the Jews were at Kriyat Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds, their freedom was suddenly challenged. They looked back to see the Egyptians quickly approaching, and it took courage and leadership to move forward despite concern and complaint. When the Jewish people are faced with great challenges, they are able to find an opportunity to adapt and create a path forward, even if it feels like we are walking into unknown waters.
COVID, was just the latest venahafoch hu, the unknown challenge that turned everything upside down. Now as we approach this year’s Purim with more and more people in the community receiving the vaccine, we can draw strength from another use of this word later in the same chapter:
וְהַחֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לָהֶם מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹב
The same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. (9:22)
It is my hope and prayer that we can feel this festive joy this year despite the tremendous losses we have suffered. Although celebrations this year will look different, we are so excited and grateful to celebrate Purim in school, double-masked, one for safety and one for costume, and physically distant. We are blessed to be a Jewish day school providing learning and community for our students and families. And we look to the future, the rest of this year and next year with joy. As a Jewish community, no matter the venahafoch hu moments, our flexibility, creativity and collaboration as a community enable us to face the challenge.
Rabbi David Fain is Rav Beit Sefer at Hillel Day School in Metropolitan Detroit.