Role Reversal

The city of Shushan was cheerful and joyous. For the Jews it was a time of light and happiness, gladness and honor.
— Esther 8:15-16

Chodesh Tov. Happy new Hebrew month. As we welcome the Hebrew month of Adar II, we are getting closer to Purim, a time we celebrate an ancient triumph with modern resonances. The Talmud tells us that when we usher in Adar, we must enhance our joy [BT Ta'anit 29a]. This is an active proposition, and it is incumbent  upon us to think of ways to increase our happiness. But what exactly is this happiness about? 
We experience happiness for many reasons: pride at doing the right thing, joy at seeing a child's blissful face, immersion in nature, satisfaction at a job well done, a special personal accomplishment. There is the happiness of song, of play, of silliness. Purim offers us the happiness of reversal. In fact, immediately after the scroll is read in the synagogue, we traditionally sing a piyut or prose/poem called "Shoshanat Ya'akov" which specifically mentions the reversal of fate in the story. The recitation of this poem is codified as law in the Shulkhan Arukh, an authoritative 16th century code of Jewish law [O.H. 690:16]. Why? Perhaps you heard the story read but missed its underlying message. The song affirms and cements it, and its words are the last words of the megilla experience.
An evil minister wanted our annihilation; a Jewish beauty queen emerged from the shadows of silence, and a dramatic role reversal changed our fate. Mordechai rode the horse Haman had chosen for himself. Esther gave Mordechai the king's ring that Haman wore. The book ends with the Jews spared, with Esther vindicated and with Mordechai positioned as second to the king.  No wonder there was happiness and joy, gladness and honor. There is true bliss when something we thought would bring us down bypasses us. There is a sense of dignity restored, as suggested by the pairing of gladness and honor. We all hold on to the hope that when we are down on our luck - sometimes even in abject darkness - that light will prevail. Something will change. Some injustice will be corrected or grace bestowed upon us even when we don't deserve it.
This message was communicated most powerfully in Hannah's prayer when she deposited her son Samuel with Eli the High Priest. Hannah was barren; she was humiliated and prayed with great intensity that if God gave her a child, she would give him back to God's service. Instead of an ecstatic burst of thanksgiving, Hannah is bewildered and humbled by how fate can change so rapidly. No one can afford the luxury or arrogance of security. One day you have it all; the next it is all taken away. Just ask Job. You spend a lifetime having nothing, and one day your dream really does comes true. Just ask Hannah. Sometimes it has to do with you, and sometimes it has to do with what seems like random forces that religious people call God. Here is a clip of Hannah's powerful words on reversal:

"The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength. Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more. She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away. The Lord brings death and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord sends poverty and wealth; He humbles and He exalts." [I Samuel 2:4-7]

Hannah had cause for exaltation. But the mother of seven children who loses them is also in her prayer, as is the warrior who loses while the weak soldier triumphs. Hannah is an observer of the human condition. It's interesting that nowhere in the Book of Esther is any similar observation made. Perhaps because it is a book of action and not contemplation. Another reason may be that Hannah offered this prayer years after Samuel was born, when she had time to digest just how strange and wonderful and terrible life can be from moment to moment. We travel with Esther and Mordechai as they ascend, descend and ascend again. We may be so busy going up and down that we forget to look back.
Abraham Ibn Ezra (d. 1167) on the verse above notes the different terms to refer to happiness and contends that tzahala "means light, as with a person who was sitting in darkness who went out into the fresh air of the world, and it was the very opposite of any middle ground. Such is what happened to the Israelites." Going from darkness to bright, eye-blinking light cannot be easy. It is the kind of blinding happiness when a miracle occurs suddenly, and fate is overturned in an instant, turning darkness to light in an outburst of surprise.

Fate, of course, works in two directions, as Hannah soberly reminds us. But for now, for this month, it is our spiritual duty to think of how fate has smiled upon us. So many challenges turned out to be blessings in disguise and then there are outright gifts that we never could have imagined. We pinch ourselves to make sure our good fortune is real.
Purim invites us to contemplate the happiness of reversals our people experienced historically and apply them to ourselves as a way to enhance our own happiness. And maybe in the process of articulating our personal reversals, we will discover even more profound joy.
Shabbat Shalom