Tomorrow (tonight) is Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet, a new month in which we celebrate Purim and start to clean for Pesach (if we didn’t already 5 months ago). For those in the secular world, or not in teaching, this may not mean much. For anyone trying to get in one more test or quiz before the crazy starts, you’re too late. In Israel especially, our only hope is that we will come out the other side of the two-week whirlwind with students whom we might convince to learn a bit more before Pesach (Passover) vacation.
This month, Adar, we have a strange injunction: to increase our joy. It’s not exactly a positive or negative command we can follow, like eating kosher (or not eating not kosher-I know, a double negative doesn’t mean two wrongs make a right, although three lefts do), or giving to the poor on Purim. Instead, we are meant to…? I don’t know exactly.
Although I have been absent from posting my thoughts recently, many things have happened lately which take turns invading my brain, often at odd hours. So here are some thoughts about Purim and joy, and how to follow such a nebulous request.
Among the events my mind keeps going over, is that tomorrow, late in the day, after Hallel (the special prayer of praise we say when a new month begins and on most holidays) has been said and the dance of joy (or just class interruption—its own kind of joy) ‘Mi Sheh’ has been danced through my classroom for the umpteenth time, I will join my friend Rivkah at the cemetery. Unlike many who look forward to this time of year, Rivkah’s thoughts turn to the son who will never have a 17th birthday. In years with two Adars, I know it is especially hard for her. There will never be a time that this will be okay, that Rivkah can celebrate ad d’lo yada, until she doesn’t know the difference; for a parent, that hole is always present, though it is felt more keenly at certain times, like tomorrow, the yahrzeit (anniversary) of her son’s murder. Avraham David was killed, along with other boys and young men, while learning in a library, the last place one would think of as dangerous. He was no more guilty than Ori Ansbacher, a 19-year-old girl who was brutally murdered just four weeks ago tomorrow. She, too, was killed in what should have been a place of peace; a forest in Jerusalem, where she had gone for a quiet walk during the afternoon and was found later that night. There was some outrage for these killings, but not enough, not nearly enough to stop it from happening over and over and over. Too many have been taken, too many parents and siblings and children will not find unfettered joy at this time, when someone is missing from their lives.
I don’t have words for these and others who are grieving losses. My own losses do not compare, despite the hole I carry; I don’t know their pain. At this time, all I can offer is a hug or a shoulder to those I know, or thoughts and prayers to those I don’t. When one’s loss is shared with the nation, the nation can offer comfort, although my deepest hope is that there will be no more sacrificial lambs to keep our nation coming together in mourning.
All our people hurt for these families, and share a small amount of the hurt ourselves as it affects us each; we are all impacted. After Ori was murdered, I could barely talk to the Arabs in the store who are usually friendly; as happens over and over, each time our trust that ‘this one is okay’ gets damaged further. We also feel less safe, which is what our enemies hope to achieve. To counter this, last week I went to a park, a forest in Jerusalem. I intended to go to Ein Yael itself, where Ori was killed, but I was not in that area; instead I ended up in a park that overlooks the Old City; the Kotel. People passed by, some Jewish but mostly Arab, but I stayed; my small bit of bravery for our people. Maybe, really, that is both the way to heal as well as the problem; we go back to regular life, those who are not directly impacted by the loss. And regular life takes up so much time and energy, that it is hard to fight the uphill battle to change things, to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
In the everyday circle of life there are feelings of pain and joy, frustration and celebration, sadness and triumph. There are people sitting shiva and those making weddings, even when the father of the bride was also killed by a terrorist so recently. Life goes on, so to speak.
In a shiur by Rabbi Judah Mischel today we heard about the eternalness of Purim. Why, when we get the third Temple in the future, will there still be a Purim? What are we celebrating? If you look carefully at the story itself, what happens? Esther is enslaved, never to go back to her family again. Her identity is removed, and even if she is not “lucky enough” to be chosen as queen, she will remain in the palace forever, a concubine. Rabbi Mischel’s take on this is that we need to notice the reality of what happened here. Why did Esther not agree immediately when given the chance to save her people? Because, after all the abuse, after being forced to leave her family and marry the king, she had barely anything left of her self, her dignity. But when she finally agreed, when she went to the king, and prayed to the King in Heaven, she fought back. She groveled on the floor, but she got up again to accuse the one who wanted to erase her people. And how did she do this? “Yavo Hamelech Hayom”- that the party should be that day. Rabbi Mischel pointed out that, unlike other holidays where we prepare, or change ourselves to match the holiday, we come to Purim as we are (or not- because we are all dressed in masks). Purim will be eternal because under all the masks and fun, it is the holiday where we remain ourselves. We don’t prepare our homes like we do for Pesach, where, as we clean the house, we are meant to do an internal soul check. We don’t fast like on Yom Kippur, where we can’t then make a mistake in blessing food so we are closer to angels as we beg for more time. We don’t take 49 days to prepare spiritually to receive the Torah, like on Shavuot. We are who we are, flaws and all. But we know that, even as we are, God has given us another day of life. As Shoshana Judelman said (in another shiur today), when we say Modeh Ani in the morning, we are thankful that God has returned our souls, with grace and compassion. Why compassion? Because if we ask ourselves, were we perfect the day before? The answer is likely not. But we have been given another chance, another day, in which to get up and try again, to see what we have and be thankful.
The rabbi also pointed out that we celebrate Purim—they wrote a Megillah, which stands in for Hallel. Why don’t we say Hallel on Purim? When we finish the story, we’ve won! Right? We killed the ones who wanted to kill us, we are still here and they are not. Let’s celebrate! Not really. Because again, if we look closely, we see that it is not exactly a Hollywood ending. At the end, after the parties are over, Esther returns to the palace, to her slavery. She does not get to go home to her village and raise a family with a husband of her choice; she remains enslaved. So we celebrate, we drink and forget –but only until. The Purim rule is drink *until* one doesn’t know the difference between Evil Haman and Good Mordechai. Rabbi Mischel said that what we are trying to erase is the message of Haman, who wanted to erase us: we need to stop looking down on ourselves, stop forgetting who we are. this message resonates particularly now, as even in our own country we are continuously forced to defend ourselves, and then to defend our right to defend ourselves. I wonder if the “until” means something else: we can drink, and celebrate, but we cannot truly forget the evil in this world. We can’t let the boring, everyday tasks take over and forget to focus on what is important.
In two weeks we will put on masks and dance and sing and stamp out Haman. Sometimes wearing masks lets us be who we truly are, show our true selves. Esther went to the king, knowing she might be killed for it, with only 3 days of fasting to prepare herself. She accepted her fate, saying “Ka’asher avaditi, avaditi.” ‘If I die, I die.” She knew that all could be lost in a day, an hour, a minute. She went as she was, in front of God who had placed her there for His own reasons, to protect her people. She was successful, but the one person she did not save was herself. And the people finished their parties, and went back to their lives as well.
Starting tomorrow, we will party, and we may try to ‘increase our joy’ this month, whether we understand how to do that or not. I think, maybe, increasing our joy is about looking at everyday things and simply being thankful. When we wake up with another day in front of us, another chance to do things right, the gift of more time, let’s try to see it. It doesn’t have to be a new month or a holiday to praise God. Ori’s name means “my light”. Her family has asked that, in her name, we do something good, bring more light to the world. Avraham David had a smile that lit up a room, as I have seen in his pictures. I didn’t have the honor of knowing either of them, although I am privileged to have gotten to know Rivkah a bit this past year. In their names, for this month, I will try to increase joy by saying: ‘I am here, I can be there for others and help them, I can bring light and joy to the world’. One idea that has always affected me is that the laws of Purim, party or not, are about giving to others. I will do my best to open my eyes, to see the beauty in the world, and to help fight the darkness by sharing whatever I can. For the families who have lost through tragedy, for my friend who got up from shiva today and only asks that people help fund research for a cure for her sister’s ALS as a way to bring an aliyat neshama to her parents, may you all find joy again, in your time and in your way. May you get comfort from a nation that seeks to comfort others. And may Am Yisrael overturn all terrible decrees and celebrate freely once more. Chodesh Tov.
L’ilui Nishmat Avraham David ben Naftali and Rivkah