Wrestling with happiness
Purim is upon us–the happiest day of the year, which takes place in Adar, the most joyful month of the year. Reflecting on happiness, a spectrum of feelings come to mind: from the deep contentment and gratitude for my privileged, comfortable life; to the joy of having a wonderful family; to indulgence in mindless guilty pleasures (my recent favorites are Pokemon Go and–yes–the Bachelor).
I experience much happiness in my life, but often fall short on the Jewish imperative to exist in a state of happiness.
Happiness is key to Jewish observance year-round. We are to delight in Shabbat each week, and to celebrate simchas and festivals. Newlyweds are meant to spend an entire year immersed in joy. We must treat our faces as public spaces and project happiness on others. In Parshat Ki Tavo, we are explicitly tasked with performing mitzvot with a glad heart, even threatend with a litany of gruesome curses”because you did not serve the Lord, your God, with happiness and with gladness of heart, when [you had an] abundance of everything.” [Devarim 28:47] Unhappiness benefits our enemies; happiness is central to our survival.
Further cementing the absolute centrality of happiness to our faith, Purim–the holiday embodying happiness–is the only festival to persist in the age of Moshiach when all other holidays fall away. The Megillah–a text that on Purim we are required to listen to every word–is recited whimsically and meant to evoke joy and laughter. And yet, I struggle to understand Purim in a way that allows happiness to break through.
I can’t seem to get past the story’s ending–it is by its own wording one of “revenge,” an edict mirroring Haman’s original that demands the killing of all Jews. Our decree requires us “to annihilate, kill and destroy every army of any nation or province that might attack [the Jews, including their] children and women, and to plunder their possessions.” After this occurs, we are commanded to commemorate each year with “feasting, rejoicing and sending portions of food one to another.” I cannot write off 75,000 deaths as self defense, particularly when the decree explicitly mentions innocent. I cannot even get on board with celebrating hanging Haman. I have trouble celebrating any death in light of another key Jewish teaching that forbids us from delighting in the downfall of our enemies; we even pause at Seder to acknowledge the plagues on the Egyptians.
Ki Tavo’s reference to “an abundance of everything” gives us a clue to what a happy state of mind entails. On Passover we pay tribute to our overflowing abundance in “Dayenu” – “it would have been enough.” A commentary on Vayishlach, where Ya’akov represents happiness and Esav discontent, also illustrates this concept. In a meeting of the two adult brothers, Ya’akov offers a gift to Esav, who initially rejects it, saying “I have plenty.” Ya’akov implores him to take it, saying, “God has favored me; I have everything.” [Bereyshit 33:9-11]. “Plenty” seems on its face to express gratitude and contentment–but the contrast to “everything” here speaks to a natural proclivity of those who have “plenty” to want more. Wanting more reveals subconscious resistance to the present–identified as the root of suffering. Happiness, then, is the feeling of, in the moment, “having everything”–thanks to God.
But this story also establishes that “I have everything” is not an easy mindset. Ya’akov’s pronouncement of happiness occurs at daybreak, following an entire night he spent wrestling with a man understood to be God’s angel. Ya’akov emerged from this interaction physically injured but victorious. He then demanded a blessing from this angel, who blessed him and gave him a new name. It is only after this harrowing fight that Ya’akov achieves the enlightened state of “having everything” in which he approaches his brother. Happiness requires an epic battle in which the odds are stacked against us.
Purim’s culmination in happiness is not simple or automatic–quite the opposite. Chapter after chapter, demons appear, personified in Haman himself: fear; gluttony; desperation; deception; bribery; lust; hunger for power; arrogance; bigotry; anger; pride; oppression; idolatry. These vices afflict us with despair, and we mourn–our horrible fate seemingly hopeless to overcome. Esther then takes it upon herself to employ various tactics, which–against the odds–prevail over this evil.
We treat Purim as a divine miracle–but unlike other miracles we commemorate, Purim consists only of human actions. Nothing supernatural occurs beyond apparent luck; the Megillah never even mentions God. This reflects tension between, on one side, exercise of will through planning and executing schemes; and on the other, God’s hand guiding behind the scenes. The enigmatic Talmudic pronouncement to drink until we cannot tell the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai” reminds me of the two mirror decrees in the Megillah–first, Haman’s call for genocide, and then the Jews’ exact reversal of that decree borne out of righteous revenge. In drinking enough to blur these lines, we know that we are not immune from human cruelty, and that human cruelty springs from–like Haman–having plenty yet wanting more. Further, experiencing a fully intoxicated state–whether through alcohol, meditation, or otherwise–amounts to a complete surrender of control, removing a primary factor underlying our perpetual suffering.
If Haman is despair personified, the Megillah’s ending warns us not to underestimate the threat despair poses to us. We must be happy, and we must realize that unhappiness has the potential to consume and destroy us if we do not destroy it. Thus, to destroy the seed of Haman is to destroy the seeds of discontent and depression, which we must strive to vanquish completely. We accomplish this at Purim by overwhelming Haman’s name with rowdy noises, so as not to let the unhappiness within us go unchallenged even once.
Balancing our capacity to master our own destiny with ultimate faith in God is no easy task–but we start with happiness as the most burdensome and important choice; one we must undertake in our quest to elevate ourselves into God’s presence. On Purim, those of us for like me for whom a state of happiness remains elusive can wrestle, and reaffirm a commitment to this daunting journey. On other days we may trudge through thick clouds–of sadness, anxiety, depression, mood swings, alphabet soup of debilitating disorders, internal and external threats to our survival. But on this day we hide our sorrow in costumes, let our egos float away, and envision ourselves like Ya’akov who fought tirelessly and demanded happiness from the ultimate source. May we persist and prevail, blessed with an inspired new identity of light away from our darkness, and the divine contentment of having everything.