Rosh Chodesh Adar – A Month of Joy In Times Like These?

Welcoming the New Month of Adar, beginning this week, celebrated with much merriment in Israel as a harbinger of Purim.

Rabbi Yehuda Oppenheimer

Judaism אפשר אחרת. פורים
אפשר אחרת. פורים
In my work as an attorney I have been privileged to help families with estate planning, a process by which people plan for eventualities that will happen after they live a good, long and healthy life.  In doing so, I have to raise issues and ask many questions, some more welcome than others.
These include questions that they would rather not ask themselves, such as: What if you are not healthy as you grow older; who will make your health care decisions for you (Health Care Proxy)?  Who will handle your financial and legal affairs (Power of Attorney)?   While unsettling, those are the relatively easy questions

The hard questions are the ones that force the client to consider the possibility that disaster will strike. What if your intended beneficiaries predecease you?   What if the person that you are sure will be there for you when you need them will be no longer available?  Who will take care of the family?  Who will watch over the children?  Who will be authorized to make legal decisions regarding your minor children (The reason that it is very important for families with younger children to have a will)?  Who will handle things if there is a breakdown of peace in the family?  Whom can you trust, no matter what, to follow your wishes?

These are hard questions. Invariably – even though people come having already gotten over their natural reluctance to consider their mortality, and have given the matter some serious thought  they have not fully considered these eventualities.  But these unfortunate possibilities are all too real, and must be faced if they are going to be dealt with responsibly.

It is relatively easy for me to to think about these questions from the arms-length perspective of an attorney. Especially so as such discussion usually takes place well in advance of problems developing, when one can put some distance between a potential tragedy and the present reality. However, when facing these questions as they happen in the present – whether as a private person or as a Rabbi expected to deliver wise words of consolation in the face of tragedy and suffering – it is another matter entirely.
The last two weeks have been very rough. Against the background of all the difficulties and tension in the world around us – the atrocious horror perpetrated by ISIS, the tragedies in France, the ominous Iranian threat and severe questions about the will of the US Administration to counter it – there has been quite a bit of personal tragedy around here. We have suffered terror attacks in France and Denmark, buried the brilliant and beloved MK Uri Orbach, little Adelle Biton.

Even here in the USA, a very respected and central figure in the local Bukharian community, a leader of the Sephardic minyan in our shul, Mr. Aharon Meirov zt”l, died at a young age after lingering for two weeks following a massive heart attack. This traumatic death caused enormous pain in the community, and the outpouring of grief was palpable as close to one thousand people attended a Motzaei Shabbat funeral held in our shul. Speaker after speaker tried to come to grips with the unexplainable – how could such a paragon of Torah and good deeds be suddenly cut down in the prime of life? One grieves and mourns, and attempts to go on, but the disquietude gnaws at the soul. 

On a personal note, almost the same day, I learned that a very dear relative, close to me in age and many other ways, father of nine including six unmarried children and known for selfless devotion to many whom he effectively and exceedingly generously helped, was diagnosed with an advanced brain tumor that severely threatens his life. Tehillim are being said, offers to help are coming in, but the angst and sorrowfulness are inevitable, as yet another unforeseeable crisis descends on a frightened family.   This in addition to other beloved relatives becoming frail and sick . . .it is difficult to watch.
And yet . . . I look forward this week to – Adar. The month of Joy. Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha. “As Adar Enters, we must increase our Joy”.
I have great trouble wrapping my meager brain around all this. How can one “turn the switch” and begin experiencing joy, in the midst of so much that seems to call for opposite emotions? Is joy something that we can just will upon ourselves, no matter what is happening all around us?
The answer of our Tradition is unequivocally – Yes. Happiness and Joy are a choice, one that we can choose to embody, no matter the circumstances. As the acclaimed book title puts it, “Happiness is a Verb”. It is an action, or a set of actions that we can choose to take in order to bring it upon ourselves. There is a well-known statement by Rav Nachman of Breslov, “Mitzvah Gedolah L’Hiyos B’Simcha Tamid” – It is a great Mitzva to constantly be in a state of Happiness.
Of course, this is easier said than done. But here are some thoughts that might help us get into the Purim spirit, no matter what we have been feeling.

First, although the law quoted above, Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha, is well known, the context in which it is stated is more obscure. The Talmud in Taanit 29a states

כשם שמשנכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה,כך משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה

“In the same way that when Av comes in we lessen our Simcha; when Adar enters we increase the Simcha”. 

A striking parallel is drawn between the Joy of Adar and the devastation of Av, of the exhilaration of Purim and the agony of Tisha B’Av. As one, so the other. The same striking language is used in describing blessings on “Good News” and “Bad News”.
חיב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שהוא מברך על הטובה

“One must offer a blessing on negative tidings in the same way as one makes a blessing on the Good” (Berachos 54a) . 

The Sfat Emet (Shekalim 5644) comments on this dichotomy, and says that it all goes back to Isaiah’s penultimate words about Jerusalem
שישו איתה משוש, כל-המתאבלים עליה 
rejoice with her a rejoicing, all who mourn over her” (66:10). 

The joy that we can experience at a time of the destruction of the Holy Temple, the Bait HaMikdash, is only that which comes from feeling the pain of the Golus, of our terrible distance from G-d and the true joy that being in His direct presence would bring. All true Simcha is “B’Meono”, in His House. We can experience Simcha only by reflecting on our distance from that wondrous experience, and in our longing to return to it. It has even been suggested that this is the source of the custom to say Mazal Tov after breaking the glass at the Chupah – the glass that is broken to remind us of the sorrow of exile – it is only from that place that we can proceed to the joy of the wedding.

Many wise people have come to realize, as M. Scott Peck famously opened his wonderful book The Road Less Traveled, that:
Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
Our tradition, however, takes this one step further in saying that we must not only “accept” that Life is difficult, but embrace that knowledge in order to achieve Simcha. It is not that Simcha is an attempt to escape from pain or to hide from the suffering that integral to the human condition. We make no attempt to forget our troubles, which is psychologically unhealthy and ultimately futile. Rather, Simcha comes from a depth of experience, shaped by positively facing unpleasant circumstances, and finding a balance between a refusal to forget; while at the same time overcoming sadness and determining to be joyous.
There are endless stories from our tradition that teach this message. Famous stories about Nahum Ish Gamzu, about Rabbi Akiva, about Rav Yehuda HaLevi, and particularly about many great figures in the Hassidic Tradition, such as Rav Zushe of Anipoli, who was famous for (among other things) finding Joy in circumstances that most would consider miserable.
And then there are stories that make one's hair stand on end. Such a story is recorded in the Aish Kodesh, where Rav Kalman Kalonymus Shapira, the Rebbe of Piacezna HY”D told his followers the following in the Warsaw Ghetto of 1940.

“The Tikunei Zohar writes that Purim and Yom Kippur – which can be read as Yom K-Purim, a day like Purim – are related. Just as we fast and do Teshuva on Yom Kippur because Hashem so decreed; so too is the Joy of Purim. It is not only when a person is full of Joy that he must have Simcha.Rather, even if he is broken-hearted and depressed, his mind and spirit crushed; he is obligated nonetheless to follow the law; there must be at least a spark of Simcha allowed to enter his heart.”

Simcha is not optional, the Piacezna Rebbe explains. Just as on Yom Kippur we must fast even if we have no desire or strength to so do, we must know that on Purim Simcha is an obligation, not an option. It is the Avoda that Hashem desires of us in this month, ready or not.

Whether or not one celebrates Yom HaAtzmaut, one has to admit that those who instituted it must have been profoundly influenced by this idea. The joy that is felt in the exhilaration of the night is greatly enhanced by the transition from the crying, bitterness, and mourning in the afternoon of Yom Hazikaron L'Chalelei Zahal (Memorial Day for those lost in fighting for Israel) – wherein virtually every Israeli family has lost a close relative who is much mourned – to the joy and singing of Yom HaAtzmaut. It must be experienced to be understood. It is the joy that comes specifically from those who lost so much to provide so much for the common good.

This ethic was captured beautifully by Elie Wiesel in a famous passage from an essay about prayer. He recalled the Mitzvah of V'samachta b’chagecha, “you shall rejoice on your festival” (Deut. 16:14). It sounds like a simple, straightforward Mitzvah, and yet, the Vilna Gaon regarded it as the most difficult commandment in the Torah. Wiesel says:

“I could never understand this puzzling remark. Only during the war did I understand. Those Jews who, in the course of their journey to the end of hope, managed to dance on Simchat Torah, those Jews who studied Talmud while carrying stones on their back, those Jews who went on whispering Sabbath songs, z’mirot shel Shabbat, while performing hard labor – they taught us how Jews should behave in face of adversity. For my contemporaries one generation ago, V'samachta B’chagecha was one commandment that was impossible to observe – yet they observed it.

Thank God, Baruch Hashem, with all the difficulties that we face, compared to many other periods of our history – let alone the Holocaust – we ought to get on our knees every day and thank Hashem for all the blessings in our lives. This is not to minimize the very real pain that we are feeling, but to appreciate all the good that we have and take great joy in it.

May Hashem soon bring the ultimate “TurnAbout” (ונהפוך הוא), and cause all those who are in worry and distress to find only true joy – the kind of joy that looks at the trouble in the past as being firmly in the past, with no need any longer to plan for any darkness in the future. (I will be happy to find another line of work!) We look forward to His return to Zion, when we will be able to enjoy