Increasing Joy

We’ve just finished celebrating Purim, and I was recently struck by the interesting way in which the rabbinic tradition handles the observation of this holiday. There are 3 central obligations that the Rabbis established:

  1. Listening to the reading of the Megillat Esther (the scroll of Esther)
  2. Delivering gifts of food to friends and neighbors
  3. Delivering gifts to the poor (traditionally money, but today more broadly interpreted)

The story of Purim has become particularly poignant these last few years in the wake of increasing numbers of anti-Semitic attacks around the world, particularly in Europe. In the Purim story, an ambitious courtier (Haman) gains the ear of an easily influenced king of Persia, and sets in motion edicts that encourage people around the entire kingdom to wreak havoc on Jews on a particular day. Before that day arrives, the recently chosen queen, who happens to be Jewish, convinces the king to rescind this order, and also to hang Haman. We joke that so many of our holidays follow the theme, “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat,” and this one fits the model perfectly.

In this case, in addition to our remembrance of these events conveyed by the first obligation, we are also enjoined to share whatever bounty we can with one another, and with those less fortunate members of our society. It is as if our survival in the face of these near-calamities isn’t actually complete or meaningful if we don’t do something meaningful with our freedom. Rather than simply celebrate in our own communities and move on, we are obligated to use our lives to improve the world.

On the first of the month of Adar, the month in which Purim takes place, we begin to sing the following song:

MeeSheh Nichnas Adar, Marbim B’Simcha (whoever enters the month of Adar will increase joy)

I suspect that the ambiguous ending — increase whose joy? your own, or that of others? — probably indicates that we are meant both to enjoy ourselves and to make sure others can do the same. This is a powerful thread of interpersonal and civic obligation that runs throughout much of Jewish tradition, and one that I particularly appreciate. G-d is conspicuously absent in the story of Purim, but I think it is through our observation of these mitzvot that we realize G-d is hidden in plain sight the whole time.

Shabbat Shalom, and I wish you increased joy during the remainder of this month of Adar,