From the Rabbi - March 2017 Print

The old joke is that Jewish festivals can be defined as “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” On Purim we might also add “drink and be merry!” In the Book of Esther, Mordechai declares the new festival by sending a letter to the Jews of the empire “to observe the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and the fifteenth day, every year – the days on which the Jews obtained rest from their enemies and the month which for them was turned from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday.” According to the Talmud, therefore, the month of Adar, in which Purim occurs, is a month in which we “increase with joy.”

But in a way this seems a bit odd.  Certainly we would be naturally happy to have survived such a threat to the Jewish people.  But the obvious emotional response would seem to be relief rather than joy.  Our ancestors celebrated out of relief, to let off steam from all the pent up anxiety born of fear that they would be killed by Haman.  But after that, for subsequent years, it might be expected that the commemoration of a near genocide of the Jewish people would be more subdued.  Why would the festival enshrine that momentary joy as the essential element of this festival for all time?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, argues that the joy of Purim and the month of Adar is a therapeutic joy.  He notes: “The Jewish response to trauma is counterintuitive and extraordinary. You defeat fear by joy. You conquer terror by collective celebration. You prepare a festive meal, invite guests, give gifts to friends… Precisely because the threat was so serious, you refuse to be serious – and in that refusal you are doing something very serious indeed. You are denying your enemies a victory. You are declaring that you will not be intimidated. As the date of the scheduled destruction approaches, you surround yourself with the single most effective antidote to fear: joy in life itself.”

This is an important message that reminds us that, no matter how dark the world seems to be, our response should be to increase joy for ourselves and for all around us.  As we look at a world that is often scary and worrying in many ways and, as we hear of very troubling ant-Semitic incidents around the United States and the world, we take the lessons of Mordechai after the awful threats we survived in the Book of Esther and apply them in advance to the problems of our time.  We declare that we will commit ourselves to hope and joy rather than fear and dread. 

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught: “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always… Strengthen yourself to push aside all… sadness. Everyone has lots of problems and the nature of humanity is to be attracted to sadness. To escape these difficulties, constantly bring joy into your life—even if you have to resort to silliness.”

Purim is silly and joyous.  But it is not simply frivolous and fun. It is a genuine and hopeful response to darkness and fear in in our lives and in our world.  When we celebrate Purim it is not just a celebration of a festival (as important as that may be) but a profound statement of resilience and life. 

Have a joyful Purim! 
Rabbi Ilan Emanuel