“From the beginning of (the Hebrew month of) Adar, we increase our happiness”. This is from the Talmud and the words to a very popular Hebrew song that many of us, religious and secular alike, sing at this time of year (today is the first day of Adar).
In Adar we celebrate the holiday of Purim, commemorating the downfall of the evil Haman, advisor to Persian King Achashuerous (possibly Xerxes), who tried to kill all of the Jews in the Persian Empire in about the 6th century BCE. The story is recounted in its entirety in the Book of Esther who, with her cousin Mordechai, caused Haman’s failure and ensured the survival of the Jews at that time.
Today Jews around the world celebrate the holiday by dressing in costumes, reading the book of Esther and making noise to drown out Haman’s name each of the 54 times it is read in the book of Esther, thus symbolically “erasing” his name from existence. We also give gifts to the poor, and food stuffs to one another. And it’s the one time when drinking to excess is permitted, even encouraged.
The entire month (two months on a leap year, which this year is not) is spent in celebration, joy, and partying.
For most of us.
For one dear friend of mine, Adar is the hardest month of the year. It was on the first day of the Adar 2 (a leap year), March 6, 2008, that a terrorist entered a Jerusalem yeshiva (center of religious Jewish learning) and murdered eight young men, ages 15-26, including her 16-year-old son.
I cannot describe the boy because I never had the privilege to meet him, but have heard from many (besides his mother) that he was a truly exceptional young man. But I can talk about his mother.
A couple of days after the funeral, I paid a condolence visit, and was shocked at what I saw. A traditional mourning house is filled with friends, neighbors and families visiting and offering words of comfort or just sitting and allowing the family to talk and share whatever they feel the need to share.
Not this time. My friend was addressing a group of Christian American tourists, who had heard about the terror attack, then decided and somehow arranged to use the tragedy as an opportunity to really understand life in Israel – not through news accounts, sightseeing and museums, but by meeting a family mourning the loss of their loved one just days earlier.
More amazing to me than the beauty of this group’s gesture was my friend’s willingness to meet with them. When I walked in, she was talking about her son, about the yeshiva where he learned, his friends, his all-too-short childhood, hobbies, likes, skills – everything. She explained the importance of living in the Land and State of Israel, even with the tragedies that befall us.
Her words and explanations were gorgeous, and I, who had lived in Israel for 20 years by that point, was touched by how the love for her son was extended to her love of Israel and of the Jewish people.
This is a woman who has managed to use the love of her son, her memories of him and the ideals which he represented (which were obviously deeply ingrained from his home life) and turn that outwards to her love of the State and the people of Israel. She has managed to walk that oh-so-very-fine line between not letting go of the memory of her son, and living in the present with her three other children and husband as well as looking towards a future filled with hope and promise.
More importantly, she has refused to allow this senseless act of murder to fill her with hatred and bitterness. Her politics are, as they were before the tragedy, right of center and her commitment to the Greater Land of Israel as the Land of the Torah promised to us by God has always been solid. Yet I have never heard her express the wish for death to the Arabs, nor does she dismiss or invalidate the complexity of the political situation in Israel. She has never turned her personal loss into a drive for revenge on Palestinians as a people. Like many of us living here, she recognizes that there are no simple solutions to the conflict, but like far too few of us, she does not offer or support any simple solutions fueled by hatred.
In a lot of ways, this is what is means (or at least should mean) to live in Israel.
For those overseas who observe life in Israel via the international news provider of their choice, it appears that we experience death, destruction and terror on a daily, even hourly basis. People tell me that they won’t visit Israel for fear of being killed, and I can’t help but to laugh, because Israel is a much safer place to live and raise children than most places I know in America – the chances of a violent untimely death are far greater in most of the world than here. The difference is that in Israel it makes international press and is (rightfully) seen in the greater context of the Israelis-Palestinians conflict.
But when terror does strike, it pulls the entire nation together for a brief time. We glue ourselves to the news broadcasts waiting to hear the names of the victims, and when they are finally released, we (hopefully) breathe a sigh of relief and offer a small prayer that it was nobody that we knew. Then we feel guilty as hell for thinking that, because there were so many families and friends who did not breathe that sigh of relief this time.
Then we cry together as a nation and as a people over the senseless loss of life due to pure hatred and evil. We hold our children and our loved ones a little bit more closely and tightly and cherish the fact that we can do so.
And we go back our “normal” daily lives –- working, playing, and going to school, the mall, the movies and restaurants. We don’t forget the tragedies or terror, but we also don’t allow them to keep us from living life.
I cannot begin to imagine what my friend, or others who have lost family members to terror have experienced, or the pain which she has to carry with her every single day. I know nothing more heart-breaking than a parent burying their child, yet she has done so with the grace, strength and dignity that defies all reason and logic.
For all that we celebrate on Purim our continued survival, we also have a tremendous challenge. How do we balance the celebration of being saved from seemingly certain destruction, the fall of a our enemy, and our rise to prominence in Persia while still maintaining a moral compass to not sink to the depths of our enemies?
This incredible friend of mine gets it. For me she is an inspiration, a beacon of light and of love in a place where hatred tends to carry the day. She represents what it means to live in Israel, to pay the ultimate price for that decision, and to continue living, growing, loving and reminding us why we are here.
She and I had been out of touch for many years when I read her son’s name among the victims. I would gladly trade my re-connection with her to bring back her son to her arms, but since we live in the world of reality and not of fantasy, that is not an option. I can only be grateful for what I do have, and for what I have been fortunate enough to learn from her.
And I can aspire to be as much like her as possible.