Between coronavirus outbreaks worldwide, stock market plummets, and ongoing political uncertainty, how can we find joy during the month of Adar and Purim this year?
“One should increase joy during the month of Adar,” says the Talmud in Ta’anit 29a. Based on this source, one could imagine that Adar, the month in which Purim falls, is the happiest of all months.
But the opposite could be true as well; maybe Adar is a somber month, and requires an infusion of joy. Just like the volume on my speakers, only when the joy is muted does it need to be turned up. So why would the sages tell us to turn up the joy in Adar? Why is it muted in the first place?
Let’s look at a few key points in Megillat Esther to understand this. From the very first word, V’yahee, “And it was,” our sages already see a hint to the tragic nature of the story.
“In every place that we see the word v’yahee, we see only calamity,” says the Talmud in Megillah 10b. The comment is based on a word play, as the sages heard echoes of the word voy, or as we know it today, oy, in the word v’yahee.
And if we read a few more words, we see that indeed this is a story of sadness and exile. “And it was in the days Achashverosh…” starts the Megillah. What about the great kings of Israel? What about King Shlomo? What about King David? No, this is a story of exile. This is a story where Jews are subject to the whims of foreign rulers, no matter how destructive their plans.
Let’s skip to the end of the story. True, the Jews have been saved by the evil hand of Haman, and he and his sons were hanged on the very tree intended for Mordechai. But at the end of the story, Mordechai, once a member of the Men of the Great Assembly in Jerusalem, is stuck in Persia as the right-hand man of a reckless, destructive, bumbling king, a king who has no loyalty to the Jews, or to anyone other than himself.
And what of Esther? If we can see Mordechai as chained to an evil dictator, then how much more painful and bitter is Esther’s story the day after our story ends?
When the Talmud asks the question, “why don’t we sing the songs of Hallel on Purim,” one of the answers given is: “[at the end of the story] We are still servants of King Achashverosh” (Megillah 14a).
In other words, this is a story of salvation, and not of redemption, and we should not confuse the two.
So amidst a month that is filled with the spirit of this difficult tale, where do we find joy?
“Give gifts of food to one another,” say our sages. “Make sure to give extra charity to the poor.”
And if that still doesn’t lighten your mood? Drink so much wine that you can longer tell the difference between the hero of our story and its villain. If you fall asleep after too much drinking, all the better.
And don’t forget to paint that smile on your face. Or put on a mask. Anything to hide the somber mood you may be feeling.
Maybe Mordechai and Esther saw a fractured community that needed their help to unite. And maybe they understood that only a person who feels broken and lonely needs to be cheered up.
Adar is a call for us to create joy and wholeness within our communities, and within ourselves. The special mitzvot of Purim are directives designed to create harmony and wholeness in places of brokenness and discord.
So we Jews take a day off (or two) to bring a smile to our friends and loved ones, especially those who we don’t always see eye-to-eye. And we reach into our pockets and support people in need, especially our neighbors, who we may sometimes ignore.
A funny costume can help us look at ourselves in the mirror and have a good hearty laugh; at times we take ourselves much too seriously.
And a few glasses of wine can clear our mind from all the messy details of life and help us to appreciate all our tremendous blessings.
So I wish everyone a Purim Sameach! Despite it all, let us make it as joyful a day as possible.