The light in despair

“You know what problems are? It’s just G-d trying to get your attention!”

And with those words, I decided to become frum.

Twenty something years later I still am. These were the first words I heard from HaRav Noach Weinberg, Z”L on a rainy winter’s morning in late December. It was an off the cuff opening to a class he had given countless times before to a seemingly never ending stream of manly ponytails and leather jackets filing through the Old City of Jerusalem.

And just by chance another Baal Teshuvah was made.

Chanukah was already over by then, and the first holiday I stumbled upon was Purim. Maybe because of that the I’ve always had a profound connection to the holiday of Purim, and the month of Adar in which it occurs.

But, paradoxically, it’s because of my connection to the month of Adar and the holiday of Purim that I know the opposite is true. I’m not connected to Purim because that was the first holiday I observed. I got frum when I did BECAUSE my soul has such an innate connection to Purim.

Just by chance I got frum at just the right time.

The rules of reality are stretched a little thinner around the month of Adar.  It’s a month that  defies order or categorization on every level. Sometimes, seemingly for no apparent reason it splits into two months.

Yes, there are some quite dull practical reasons for there occasionally being two Adars – to do with reconciling the lunar and solar calendars in leap years. But why Adar? Why is it at that time of year that we just happened to decide to allow one month to morph into two?

It’s so in-fitting with the nature of Adar that it would do so.  Adar is like a brilliant and inventive clown, that can hilariously confuse you out of nowhere, and make you realize what you thought was happening was really the opposite.

And that would be a good description of my friend, Yaakov BenShushan, the undisputed king of Purim. Yes, his name’s BenShushan – named after the famed city where the story of Purim took place.  I have never met a more brilliant or inventive comedian. For many years we hosted the Purim parties at Aish HaTorah, where we met.  Yaakov’s genius allowed him to pull insanity out of the air, and weave it into exquisite, intelligent and superb humor.

This Shushan Purim will be the fourth anniversary of his passing.

He was buried in Jerusalem in the closing hours of Shushan Purim.  Mourners staggered to attendance from their festive meals, wreaking of alcohol in a unique inverted form of grief.

On Purim one drinks to the point when they cannot tell the difference between good and evil, and Yaakov, in his perfectly timed passing made that a profound reality for all who were blessed to know him.

Just by chance, it was at exactly the right time.

Purim is personified by the defeat of the nation of Amalek.  The story of Purim tells of how the Jews were miraculously victorious over the nation of Amalek, led by Haman.

Who are Amalek?  In the Bible they attacked the Jewish people right after the exodus from Egypt.  One commentary says they just happened to comes across the Jews by chance, and attacked. Elsewhere, however, it says that it was a deliberate, planned attack.

These seemingly disparate contradictory traditions can be reconciled by understanding the  nature of Amalek, and what their function is in the world.

When was it that Amalek came and attacked? Directly after an incident when the Jewish people complained against Moses, as there was no water.

Is G-d with us? they questioned amongst themselves.  And then Amalek attacked.

But really, were the complaints of the Jewish people so unreasonable.  They were in the desert and they had no water.

In the desert.

With NO water.

Have you ever been in a desert before with no water?  What about you and your kids in a desert with no water? How about you, your family, and everybody you loved and cared for in the world.

In a desert…with no water.

And they reasonably cried out “is G-d amongst us or not?”, “Did G-d bring us to the desert just for us to die?”.

Their despair was reasonable.  Their despair was real.

At the time of writing this, eleven years ago this night my mother passed away.

It was a year when there was two Adars, and she passed on the first one.  I remember a palpable sense of confusion and dismay.

“Why would G-d, who I knew was in complete control of reality”, I thought to myself, “why would G-d, bring such a sense of personal tragedy to this, my most cherished month of Adar?”.

And therein lies a very deep understanding of the power of Purim and Adar.

Amalek represents the philosophy of random chance.  They just ‘happened’ across the Jewish people.  But they didn’t – they planned it.

Nothing ‘just happens’. The concept of chance is an illusion.  It is a tool used by G-d to make us despair.

To make us think, ‘It’s hopeless, there’s no chance’.

And if we believe in chance we will despair as we did in the desert.

And then G-d brings Amalek to attack us.

Our despair empowers Amalek, and Amalek in turn empowers our return to G-d, and the eventual defeat and rejection of the powers of chance. Amalek forces us to understand that chance is illusionary.

But, there is another way.

If we would just not buy into the power of chance, and deny it, Amalek can never become empowered. Instead, by denying despair we can empower ourselves a hundred fold.

We can empower ourselves in a more fundamental and real way than we would dream possible.

But the despair needs to be real.  The despair needs to be credible.

We need to be in a desert with no water.

Or at your mother’s funeral.  Or at your best friend’s funeral.

Without the real despair we cannot deny it.  Without the despair we cannot achieve the incredible power of denying it, and a profound connection with G-d.

“You know what problems are? It’s just G-d trying to get your attention!”

About the Author
Tzvi Lebetkin: Writer, Adventurer, Private Consulting Detective & Lover. Kosher Kritic & Rabbi from another planet. Available for screenplays, comic books, weddings, divorces and bar mitzvahs.
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