Adar in a Season of Discontent…

On the way into Manhattan earlier this week to teach my seminar in the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, I had my radio tuned to WCBS, an all-news station. The ride took about twenty-five minutes, and I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said that the entire twenty-five minutes on the radio was taken up with bad news and worse news about the economy. The only thing that bordered on something other than that was a report about Bill Clinton, complaining that President Obama was too focused in his public pronouncements on how bad the economy is. Not quite good news…

When I got to class, the dean of the Rabbinical School, who teaches the seminar with me, was wearing a brightly colored tie depicting a radiant sun. When I asked him about it, he commented that it was a Beatles tie called “Good Day Sunshine,” and he was wearing it in honor of Rosh Hodesh Adar (the beginning of the new lunar month in which Purim is celebrated). And then the guest lecturer for the day, a woman, came in wearing a Purim-themed pin on her blazer, featuring a megillah, some hamantaschen… you get the picture. “Wow,” I said. “Hey,” she replied, “it’s Rosh Hodesh Adar!”

I was not unaware that it was Rosh Hodesh Adar; I had actually attended daily services that morning at my own synagogue. But I am obliged to admit that the traditional connection between the onset of Adar and a lighter and happier mood had been completely lost on me this year. Much to my chagrin, I hadn’t even thought of it.

And I’m wondering to myself, maybe it’s time for me- for all of us- to turn off the news radio and cable news channels for a while and declare a moratorium on economically rooted cheerlessness. As my colleagues said… it is Adar, after all!

Whether or not one can command another person to be happy is at best questionable. Bobby McFerrin did a pretty good job of it a few years ago with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but between us we can admit that, if it were possible to get people to cheer up simply by telling them to do so, it would be much harder for all those therapists and mental health professionals to make a living. You can’t “command” emotions. Jewish philosophers have long recognized this. Witness their discussions long ago about whether one can be commanded to “love God,” as the Sh’ma does quite clearly. One may want one’s children, say, to love each other, but we all know that telling them to is of limited utility. In the same vein, saying “Be happy, it’s Adar” is not likely to meet with universal good cheer.

But that said, I do think that making a conscious effort to lift one’s mood- whether for Adar or simply for our sanity- is an idea whose time has definitely come. This is, traditionally, a time of the Jewish calendar year when we indulge in levity, and allow ourselves to believe that the capacity to laugh is a powerful antidote to pervasive anxiety and sadness.

I’m working on it- making a conscious effort! Which reminds me of a joke…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.