Michael Bernstein

The Joy of Absurdity and the Absurdity of Joy [A tribute to Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker for their 19th Yahrtzeit]

Today marks the new month of Adar which is an occasion unlike any other on the Jewish calendar.  The Sages say “When the month of Adar enters, we increase our joy”  But why should this month merit such a distinction?  Yes, we celebrate Purim in Adar, a time of celebrating the miracle of the Jews of Persia being saved from annihilation at the hands of the wicked Haman. We put on masks, eat hamantaschen, and are even bidden to drink alcohol to excess according to a tradition is not strictly followed and has been rethought over time.  But why is Adar more worthy of a month of joy than Nissan in which we celebrate Passover or Kislev when we celebrate Chanukah?   Purim is far from the only holiday that can be described with the catchy “they tried to kill us, we survived, lets eat!”

Recently I had the honor of learning from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of England who gave a powerful answer to this question.  He taught that the joy leading to Purim is necessary because of how much fear goes along not only with what Haman tried to perpetrate but the archetype of his murderous hatred, his ancestor Amalek.  Rather than being paralyzed by dread or even solemn in our defiance, Rabbi Sacks teaches that Purim’s lesson is that the antidote to fear is an intense joy that taps into our confidence in G*d and sense of mission as a people.

I think about these words as we enter into Adar once more in a world where there is what to fear.  A hateful Iran looks to acquire a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile Anti-Semitic incidents continue in Europe from  the chilling desecration of swastikas on Jewish gravestones in France to the murderous spree in Copenhagen that once more started with an attack on a Danish cartoonist but ended by taking the life of a Jewish man guarding his synagogue.  We have seen an increased threat from those inspired by or conspiring with forces that wreak malice in the name of Islam or out of renewed fervor for the symbols and hateful ways of the Nazis.  Sometimes it feels far away and sometimes as close as our own backyard.  Joy? Can joy really be a response to this hatred?

When Passover time comes the month after Purim, we are a bit more balanced.  There is great joy and celebration for having been liberated from the horrors of Egypt, but we also delve into the complexities of what our freedom from slavery means.  We talk of the villainy of Pharaoh and his armies but we spill drops of wine so as not to rejoice over their suffering in the Ten Plagues.  We drink four cups of wine over the course of the Seder meal, but the goal is to enhance our celebration not to get smashed, to use a technical Rabbinic term.  In other words we take seriously not only the severity of the oppression we faced, but the joy of liberation and the lessons that make us who we are today.  We do not put a premium on telling an unchanging story, but in fact we say “whoever adds a new insight or way to understand is praiseworthy.”

Not so much in Purim.  The Megillah, the Book of Esther chronicling the story of Purim, is traditionally read in its entirety and in its original.  Instead of adding new insights, we often accompany the story with a shpiel, silly songs and skits whose main purpose is to poke fun and amuse rather than teach.  In addition to the drinking (sometimes), costumes, and shpiel the Megillah reading also feature graggers, noisemakers that drown out the sound of Haman’s name every time it is mentioned.  While some places take very seriously the need to hear every word and keep some decorum in the midst of the unusual customs, on many occasions the experience of Purim is wild, over the top and absurd.

In fact, it is absurdity that speaks to me the most about what makes the joy of Purim different than the joy of any other holiday.  While Purim celebrates a miracle of survival the Book of Esther is the only book of the Hebrew Bible in which G*d’s name does not appear.  No plagues come down to halt Haman’s evil.  No light burns on to show that the victory came from a higher source.  The salvation of the Jews is a mixture of forethought and bravery on the part of the Jewish heroes Esther and Mordechai and what appears to be just plain luck. That was all that made the difference between the end of the hundreds and thousands of Jews in Persia and possibly beyond.  How do you celebrate that kind of miracle in which there are no unambiguous signs of G*d’s presence?  By embracing the absurdity of being alive.

The joy of Adar is not just an antidote to fear, but also a recognition that there is only so much we can control, prepare for, and understand about the world around us.  On most days we do our best to be alert, rational, and realistic about facing an uncertain and often frightening world.  On Purim we dive into the mystery,  even dulling our senses and blurring the lines that seem so important most of the time.  By doing so we remind ourselves that although we must live vigilantly and responsibly we also have to have a healthy sense of our own limitations.  We must never forget that evil exists in the world, yet we must be careful not to paint every incident with the same brush or miss the opportunity to bring light into a place that may seem at first glance nothing but dark.

As we enter Adar, the month where sometimes despite ourselves we are invited to increase our joy, may we find nothing but blessings and an end to sorrows and fears.

These thoughts are offered in memory  of Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, dear friends of both my wife Tracie and me and incredible examples of  living life with  passion, commitment, profound  humility and incredible joy.  This Tuesday, February 24th will be the nineteenth yahrtzeit – Nineteen years since they were murdered in the number 18 bus bombing in Jerusalem perpetrated by Hamas with backing by the Iranian government.  May their memory be a blessing and their lives teach us how to embrace the absurdity of joy and the joy of absurdity.
About the Author
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, Ga. Michael received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999 and is an alumni of the Rabbis Without Borders second cohort. and was inducted into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College. Michael specializes in Jewish philosophy, especially that of Emmanuel Levinas and focuses on how to see the directives inherent in Jewish tradition as meaningful, ethical, and relevant.
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