Most of the month of March coincides with the Hebrew month of Adar. In Adar, in preparation for the joyous celebration of Purim, our tradition tells us to “greatly increase our joy.” Just as we spend the month of Elul in introspection and reflection in order to prepare for the High Holy Days, Adar gets us into the spirit of the season by telling us to enjoy ourselves.
We are told to prepare festive meals, to sing and dance more, to make time for fun and celebration. As important as the heavy work of repentance, our tradition emphasizes the value of fun too.
However, this can be a challenging and difficult task. Like being told to “look on the bright side,” of what feels like a major catastrophe, or to “cheer up” amidst a very real depression, a command to have fun is certainly more easily said than done. The commandment too seems to delegitimize the very real pain some might be experiencing during this season. Mourning the loss of a loved one, for example, doesn’t end just because you are commanded to enjoy life this month. Struggling to recover from tragedy while being told that you “should” be having fun, is neither realistic or helpful.
If we look beyond this mandate to increase our joy, and delve into the text behind the holiday itself, we read about lively parties and feasts, dancing and beautiful people. The story is told through jokes and farce. The connection to holiday celebration and joy is clear. And yet, the week before Purim, Shabbat Zakhor, we read Deuteronomy 25:17-19. Based on a tradition that Haman shared ancestry with Amalek, we prepare for our celebration by remembering that the Israelites were once killed by the Amalekites. The story is tragic. As the Israelites marched through the desert, the Amalekites attacked from behind, killing the most vulnerable members of the community
If we look to the end of the book of Esther, to the end of the Purim story, we again read about death and destruction. On the day the Jews of Shushan expected to be executed by evil Haman, the king gives the Jewish community permission to rise up and destroy any communities which oppress them or pose danger. Though this is deemed by tradition a necessary act to save the Jewish communities, we mourn any loss of human life, any destruction and violence, even that of our enemies.
Thus the holiday of Purim, the fun and joyous occasion, is ultimately flanked on each side by tragedy. The sadness, the pain, the violence are not ignored, but rather remembered and even accentuated. The lesson of the month cannot possibly be that we should forget our troubles and simply be happier this month because Rabbinic tradition tells us to do so. Rather, maybe the lesson is to acknowledge that life is never all happy or all tragic. We each have moments of both in our lives, sometimes at once. For those of us who are unable to truly enjoy this holiday season, let us cut ourselves some slack. Let us remember that no one expects us to be happy all the time, or to pretend that our very real suffering does not exist. For those of us who are able to celebrate, to feel joy and excitement in the coming weeks, let us remember that we have not always felt that way, and let that memory make our festivities even more sweet by comparison.
Rabbi Toba Strauss Schaller