The stress of trying to be happy

It’s Adar, be happy!

Yay.

Not much can stress a person as much as trying to be happy. That stress compounds when everybody around you is happy. Or, at least they appear to be.

Consider a wedding. Weddings are the uber-simcha; “the happiest day of your life”. Mom and dad, siblings, grandparents and, of course, bride and groom smile and radiate joy from first-light, through the chupah, until they load the last gift into the limo. You dance, you croon, you flash pearly whites.

You stress.

You need to find a wedding date. When the weather is kind. But, it can’t be at the same time as financial year-end for Uncle Sid from Oz. And your future sister-in-law is expecting a baby just after that. But, the hall you want is booked for the whole month beforehand. You juggle and haggle and eventually pick The Date.

That’s the least of your worries.

Now you have to select a menu (not too hard), choose a photographer (remember, those portraits will hang on your living room wall, and you really don’t want them to look like Dave & Tali’s…), design a wedding dress (off-the-rack is so 90’s) and matching outfits for the retinue (unless you’re super frum, in which case you only need new outfits for the family. Oh, and new sheitels). You’ll need a band (who can blast Shwekey, and strum something traditional enough for Bubby) and a videographer and flowers, and sheva brochos outfits, and gifts for the couple’s out-of-town friends (after all, they’ve trekked all the way from Monsey for this).

Who should sing sheva brochos under the Chupah? (You can’t overlook Uncle Bernie, but his Hebrew is weak and his singing voice… weaker) Who should speak at the reception? Who can you afford not to invite, seeing as you definitely cannot afford to invite everyone? Do the Goldbergs still not speak to the Hirsches, or can you seat them together? And where should you put the non-Jewish fellows from work (who will already feel awkward enough sitting apart from their spouses)?

You’re so frazzled by The Big Day that you need to apply an extra layer of foundation, or a stiff lechaim to keep up the happy image during the celebration.

We rabbis stand close-up at weddings. We see clenched jaws. We feel the tension when a wedding coordinator forgets a wine glass or when a wardrobe malfunction threatens to derail proceedings or when a custom-designed artistic kesuvah arrives with a spelling error. We notice the recoil when an overbearing relative makes that insidious remark to the bride.

It is stressful when you try to be happy.

Purim is the same. Adar is the month of joy and Purim is its epicenter. Purim is wildly exciting. It’s a day of joyous abandon, boosted by crazy costumes, sugar highs and silly adults. It’s a child’s dream. And a parent’s nightmare.

Shtetl Jews probably had a happier Purim than we do. They would have donned a funny hat, munched on home-baked poppy-filled hamantashen, swigged a lechaim and reveled in the drowning out of Haman’s name (undoubtedly, with their local Haman in mind).

Purim 2019? Stressful.

Your kids dressed as Minions last year (and the Katzenberg kids did too). This year, you’re hard at work on a wearable scale model SpaceX rocket in honour of Israel’s planned Moon landing. That’s for your preteen son. You want your younger daughter to be the Mona Lisa (the Katzenbergs would never think of anything that cultured). And you and your spouse plan to go retro this year, as Abbot and Costello (you’ve even got grey makeup).

As for Mishloach Manot. Gone are the days of choc-chip cookies and a soda can. You’ve already rejected all the glossy arrangements splashed throughout Mishpacha magazine. You’ve scoured Pinterest, Amy Geller and MasterChef for revolutionary recipes and presentation concepts. You’ve got a winner this year, but you’re not letting on. Wait for Purim, you tell them, knowing full well that you’ll get plenty oohs and ahs on the day.

You still have a few weeks to finalize your recipient list (definitely¬†not the Katzenbergs after the lead balloon they reciprocated with last year). And you’re almost done with your seudah guest list.¬†That seudah will be talk of the shtibel. It always is.

Ah, the joys of trying to be happy.

Earlier this week was Purim Katan, the “mini” Purim we commemorate in a Jewish leap year. You might have missed it. I mean, it was there on the calendar. Nothing more. No garish dress-up, no elaborate food gifts, no single malts at dinner. No pressure.

No fun?

Here’s the interesting part. The very last discussion in Orach Chaim (the first of four books of the Code of Jewish Law) centres on Purim Katan. Do we celebrate the day or not? “Real” Purim is only during the second Adar. So, should you celebrate the first round too? Rabbi Moshe Isserles (leading Halachic authority of the Ashkenazi world) rules that you should “add a little to your meal” in honour of the date. And he ends the discussion (and the book) with a quote from King Solomon, “A good heart always feasts”.

Purim Katan offers no special reason for joy. It’s not a Yom Tov, there is no mandatory meal, lechaims or rituals. There’s no reason to be joyous.

Which is the secret to happiness.

As long as you believe that you need something in order to be happy, you can’t be happy. Perfect weather, a choreographed dance-set and a kind mother in law won’t make you happy. Purim costume-of-the-year and eye-popping mishloach manos don’t ensure simchas Purim. Any thought that sounds like “I’ll be happy when…” is a barrier to happiness.

Purim Katan may well be more joyous than Purim. It reminds us that happiness is a mitzvah. Happiness is a challenge. Happiness is a choice.

 

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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