Earthquake, Tsunami, Terror, and Purim: Dealing with Cognitive Dissonance

Jewish holiday celebrations have fixed dates. That is to say, while they are associated- particularly the pilgrimage festivals- with specific seasons of the year, they nonetheless have fixed dates on which they begin and end. So when we observe them is not a matter of choice, but rather prescribed by our tradition.

I bring up the subject because the celebration of Purim this year, one of the most joyous days in the Jewish calendar year, was uncomfortably juxtaposed with the cataclysmic events in Japan. It seemed to me- and I’m sure to many others- more than a little unseemly for us to be celebrating and acting silly as we are encouraged to do on Purim while the images of people suffering on such a grand scale were all around us. It could never happen, I know, but the thought did occur to me that postponing our observance of Purim seemed a not outrageous idea…

As I pondered my discomfort with this awkward juxtaposition, rife with cognitive dissonance, I thought back to two other instances when I felt exactly the same way.

The first was in 1996, the year of my oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah. As we were approaching Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat immediately before Purim on which we remember the ancient treachery of Amalek and its more modern manifestations (and when he became a bar-mitvah), terrorist bombers were wreaking havoc in Israel, and innocent civilians were dying in the most horrendous ways.

The second instance was in 2002, just a few months after the tragic events of September 11. How could we celebrate Purim when there was literally smoke still rising from the ruins of the towers? Wouldn’t it defame the memory of the thousands who died to even look happy when our city was in such deep mourning? And on top of the tragedy in our own city, the intifada in Israel was in full force, and Jerusalem was a city once again racked by murderous explosions almost every day. Sadly, as I write, reports are coming in of a suicide bombing at a bus stop in Jerusalem just today.

How does one celebrate in the face of all that?

The answer is, as best as we can. We should celebrate with as much passion as we can muster, and with a love of life and an affirmation of joy that flies in the face of both the possibility of disasters not of human making, and also those rooted in hatred and cynicism about life itself.

One of the more famous teachings associated with the great Hassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav is mitzvah g’dolah lihiyot b’simcha tamid… it is a great and important commandment to always be joyous. On the surface, it’s an odd teaching. Why is it a commandment to be joyous, how can you command someone to be joyous, and how can anyone be expected to be joyous all the time?

The longer I live, the more I understand Rebbe Nachman’s teaching.

More often than not, the sad truth is that the world in which we live mitigates against joy. Events like earthquakes and tsunamis intrude on our sense of balance and equilibrium, and are existentially terrifying. Human acts of terror do much the same, with the added overlay of distress that comes with knowing that someone out there – or some group of people- hate us in America, or Israel, so much that they would blow up innocent people at a bus stop or in skyscrapers just to make sure that we don’t miss the point.

What Nachman was saying was that you can’t stop living because of your fears, even if they’re well founded. You have to celebrate life even though it won’t always be easy, and even if, as it did this past week, it sometimes feels awkward or inappropriate. You have to consciously work at being happy in order to live a happy life. Happiness is not a birthright, but living a happy life is indeed a spiritual and religious value- especially in the face of sadness.

Smart man, that Rebbe Nachman… he would have made a fine therapist.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click here.

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