Purim

Your H.Q

When the month of Adar enters, we increase in joy.
— BT Ta’anit 29a

How’s your happiness? There is a well-known expression in the Talmud applicable at this time of year: “When the month of Adar enters, we increase in joy.” During the Hebrew month of Av, the Talmud continues, when we mark the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of our holiest sanctuary, we are supposed to reduce our happiness (BT Ta’anit 29a), what I call a halakhic (legal) seasonal affective disorder. It sounds as if our emotions can be turned on and off like a light-switch.

Happiness is foundational to the religious mindset. The psalmist says: ‘Serve the Lord with happiness…” (100:2), and when we bring out first fruits to the Temple, we recite a prayer that reinforces the emotional state of joy that this moment should be for us: “And you should rejoice in all the good that the Lord has given you..” (Deut. 26:11). We are even warned and punished if we do not rejoice in what we are given because happiness is the desired ontological state of the religious human being: “Because you did not serve the Lord joyfully and gladly in a time of prosperity...” (Deut. 28:47). It is a curse to be unable to muster joy at a time of blessing.

Rebbe Nahman tells us it is a mitzva to be happy always, despite what Arthur Green documents about his deep depressive tendencies in Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav. And yet R. Nahman continually fought his melancholic impulse: “...For it is known that a man must be very careful to be always happy, and to distance sadness very, very much… The same applies to the way you look at yourself. You must judge yourself favorably and find the good points that exist in you. This will strengthen you so you won't fall into despair (Likutei Moharan Kama, Torah 282).

But why Adar? Why not every month of the year? It seems that indeed one month, this month, did give us a boost and that there is something nuanced about happiness in this season that is particular to this month. Our text? The Megillah. In 9:22, we read, “The days when the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness…” became an occasion to share a feast together and give gifts to friends. We are joyful because as a community, we transformed ourselves emotionally from doom and despair to gladness. This is the happiness of justice prevailing. This is so intrinsic to Adar, as a just season for the Jews that a code of law recommends that if you have to go to court with a gentile (in periods where we had an adversarial relationship), you should set the trial date in Adar (based on BT Ta’anit 29a).

In Adar we are not supposed to be happy; we are supposed to increase our happiness. So it’s time to use Adar to amplify our H.Q. – our Happiness Quotient. What is your baseline? Where are you from 1-10 (with 1 being miserable and 10 being exuberant)? Now imagine adding just a point or two this month. Here are some questions to help:

  • Do you have a happy place and are you spending enough time there?
  • What people – family, friends and colleagues – make you feel happy and are you spending enough time with them?
  • Think of three areas of your life that have to go well in order for you to feel happy. •    What is one thing that you own that makes you happy?
  • Name one mitzva, holiday or Jewish ritual that makes you happy.
  • Do you make time to acknowledge or celebrate your accomplishments and the blessings in your life or are you too harsh on yourself?
  • Do you share or communicate your happiness with others?
  • Do you let other people rob you of your happiness?
  • What about work, school or retirement makes you feel happy?

Does giving tzedaka and/or volunteering contribute to your personal happiness? This month we’re asked to challenge our baseline happiness and enhance it. My guess is that if we all work hard on increasing our personal happiness in the month of Adar, it may not end when Adar ends but just may spill over into every other month of the year.

Shabbat Shalom

Last Minute Surprises

That night the king could not sleep...
— Esther 6:1

The past few months have brought a lot of high-profile, last-minute shake-ups. Pollsters were wrong about the presidential elections. If you left the room two minutes before the end of the Superbowl, you would have missed an astonishing and unexpected win. If you missed the very last award of the Oscars last week, you didn't see a group of people on stage with their jaws wide open when the right winner was announced and the retinue of the wrong ones had to get off the stage. Oy.
 
What makes each event so dramatic is that our expectations are upended very late in the game. We move mentally in the groove that's been set, but as it travels it may change rapidly and leave us all emotionally and physically unprepared. That's why I hate surprises. But many people love them for this very reason. They make life feel unpredictable. They give people who lost hope, a magical injection of hope on steroids, and they let us know that we need to pay more attention. Every once in a while, if we're paying careful attention, we will enjoy the reward. We all want, maybe even need, to believe that the impossible happens sometimes.


We just welcomed the Hebrew month of Adar, which comes with its own holiday of surprises. Purim celebrates the impossible, and perhaps we have so many rituals connected to the holiday to immerse us in the belief that the impossible sometimes happens. Because it happened in an ancient walled city thousands of years ago, who's to say that it cannot happen again to us? The chapter that arguably surfaces the most surprises is chapter six, when through a series of "coincidences," King Ahashversoh finally sees two influential ministers for who they really are. We will read a swath of the megillah to see how this plays out.

"That night the king could not sleep; so he ordered the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign, to be brought in and read to him. It was found recorded there that Mordecai had exposed Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king's officers who guarded the doorway, who had conspired to assassinate King Ahashverosh. 'What honor and recognition has Mordecai received for this?' the king asked. 'Nothing has been done for him,' his attendants answered. The king said, 'Who is in the court?' Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the palace to speak to the king about impaling Mordecai on the pole he had set up for him. His attendants answered, 'Haman is standing in the court.' 'Bring him in," the king ordered. When Haman entered, the king asked him, 'What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?' Now Haman thought to himself, Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?'" (Esther 6:1-7)
 

The king's sleep is described in Hebrew as interrupted. He is unable to rest, Rashi says, because he suspects that Haman is up to no good with his new beautiful bride Esther. Historical chronicles are brought, as Rashi notes, to help him go back to sleep. Others are of the view that history is so interesting that once the king was awake, he should spend his time on something worthwhile: history. When reading his empire's chronicles, the king realizes that a loyal servant who blocked an assassination attempt had not been rewarded. Perhaps the assassination attempt itself had not reached the king's ears and reading it for the first time, he felt insecure. Insecurity coupled with suspicion helps explain the king's sudden and startling question, "Who is in the courtyard?"

Just as the king is thinking about rewarding Mordechai, Haman enters the scene readying the gallows for Mordechai's death. The king takes advantage of this moment to test Haman and see how close this minister wants to get to Ahashverosh's throne. The answer: very close.
 
This escalation of tension is built one surprise and a time. Each surprise leads to another that culminates in the biggest surprise, the gift the Jews are given to defend themselves when under attack. The underdog wins yet again because these surprises reveal something powerful about two antagonists. The king is finally able to see Mordechai for he is and Haman for who he is. Only after the acts of seeing in chapter six, does the plot truly thicken. One man's insomnia leads to the redemption of an entire people. Who would have thought?
 
Esther is a story that gives us hope, one surprise at a time. The oppression of its early beginnings, as the wheels of injustice are set in place, give way to a longer view that justice will eventually reign. We are only prepared for this big surprise through a series of small surprises strung together. It is this necklace of hope that leaves us with the scroll's most powerful teaching. Celebrate each small surprise, and the great surprises will eventually become a cause for great celebration. Hope thrives on the element of surprise.
 
When is the last time you were truly surprised?
 
Shabbat Shalom

Feasting, Fasting and Forgetting

And the King and Haman sat down to drink, while the city of Shushan was bewildered.
— Esther 3:15

Scholars have long regarded the Megillah, the scroll of Esther, as a story told between feasting and fasting. Food, that constant draw for our people, often tells us a great deal about daily life and special occasions. The Book of Esther is no different. We begin with a 187-day drinking binge at Ahashverosh’s palace then fast for 3 days with Esther and her maidens. We join Esther in her triangle of intrigue with Haman and the King over libations and eat with merriment and share gifts of food over our triumph. Basically, we cannot stop eating. 

But in this festival of food, there is one small oft-neglected scene that reveals a great deal about its central characters. After Haman has petitioned the King to annihilate the Jews and was given his ring as a stamp of approval and power, Haman and the King toasted their wicked decision: “The couriers went out, spurred on by the King’s command, and the edict was issued in the citadel of Shushan. The King and Haman sat down to drink, while the city of Shushan was bewildered.” [3:15] Rashi states that those who were confused were the Jews of Shushan – good, law-abiding citizens were totally blind-sided. But why only Jews? Confusion spread about who this king was; one day he invites his kingdom to party with him and the next, it’s off with your heads. Royal flip-flopping makes for bad governance.

There are many ways to view this postscript to their decree. Perhaps the King and Haman were drinking to forget, to blur the momentousness or potency of this decision. After all, what king would so ruthlessly subject one of his peoples to destruction without creating agitation throughout his entire empire? This decree was not only of interest to the Jews but to everyone in the king’s 127 provinces. What real benefit would such havoc wreak when his own capital city was already confused and perhaps dazed by what this unpredictable king had in store for the future?

None of the traditional commentators, however, comment on the fact that this scene is reminiscent of what Joseph’s brothers did right after they deposited him in a pit: “And they took him and threw him into the pit; and the pit was empty. There was no water in it. And then they sat down to a meal…”[Gen. 37:25] The13th century exegete, the Hizkuni, writes: “They sat at a distance but not that far away, lest they be able to hear his cries from there.” They would enjoy their meal all the more knowing that they finally rid themselves of this troubling brother who stole all their father’s love. Or they lacked even the smallest degree of empathy and had no trouble enjoying themselves at a heart-wrenching moment for their brother.

The Sforno, a 16th century Italian commentator, says that throwing Joseph in a pit presented no difficulty for them, nor did it prevent them from enjoying a pleasant repast. Nahum Sarna is sharper in his comments, contending that they had “callous indifference to their brother’s anguished pleas. The action allows time for further discussion of Joesph’s fate in the absence of Reuben. At the same time, it provides an interlude until a fresh and final opportunity for vengeance develops.”

It is heartless to drink and be merry upon signing a decree to murder an entire nation without cause. Perhaps more than the decree itself is this act an indication of how murder can take place only at the hands of those who lack any compassion, who can dull themselves to the pain of others.

The author Marty Rubin writes that, “A heart that can break is better than no heart at all.” Having had our hearts so badly broken in this story, we of all people understand that only those who experience true sorrow have a chance at true compassion and happiness, the kind of joy we experience at the end of the Megilla. It is this joy that we pack up and deliver to others on Purim, and it is this joy that we swallow in large gulps as we enjoy a festive meal in community. If theirs was the sin of callousness, we redeem the Purim story when we serve food to stranger and friend with extra love and care. 

So this year, redeem this moment. Give one food package – mishloah manot – to someone who is not expecting it.

Happy Purim. Shabbat Shalom

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

Long Live the Queen

Vashti refused to come...
— Esther 1:12

True story: we once had a neighbor who had a dog named Vashti. One day, I stopped him on the street and asked him why he gave the dog that name. "It's simple. The dog refused to listen."

Vashti gets a lot of heat. She seems to be vilified everywhere. Even bad dogs carry her name. In Talmudic aggada, she is accused of making a party with immoral intent, told to come to her husband's party wearing only a crown, and refuses on the grounds that she's covered in leprous pimples or had grown a tail [BT Megilla 12a-b]. Her refusal had little to do with modesty but a lack of humility. As royalty herself, she refused to listen to her husband's demand and tried to put him in his place as someone beneath her in class and station: "You used to be the stable boy in my father's house, and you used to bring naked harlots before you. Now that you have ascended the throne, you still have not changed your habits." The same Talmudic pages accuse her of taking Jewish women to serve her, asking them to parade before her without clothing and then work for her on Shabbat. Because of this, tradition says that she was executed on Shabbat. 

The midrashic collection, the Yalkut Shimoni contends that she denied Ahashverosh permission to rebuild the Temple. This seems far-fetched to derive from the little bit of text we have about Vashti in the Book of Esther but in midrashic tradition, Vashti is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar who destroyed Solomon's Temple and the daughter of King Belshazzar from the book of Daniel who drank out of Temple goblets at parties. The idea was to weave these characters together to demonstrate a pattern of anti-Jewish behavior in the family DNA.

Much later, in the 16th century when a spate of commentaries on Esther surfaced, Jews of the diaspora used the text to question their relationship with royalty in the century following the Inquisition. We're not at all surprised to find readings that equate Ferdinand with Ahashverosh and Isabella with Vashti. For Jews who were converted, burned at the stake or exiled, there was a certain comfort in believing that fate could change and that irrational decrees by the king may one day be overturned in their favor.

This all seems quite unfair to poor Vashti, who ultimately takes a hit for Persia and is banished from the book if not actually executed. She simply disappears from its verses and is replaced with one verse sharing the king's sober remorse. If we do a close reading of the verses, Vashti seems modest, humble and appropriately defensive of her propriety. If anything, the king's anger seems misplaced, an anger that subsided when the impact of alcohol left him and he could see his own behavior more clearly.

"Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Ahashverosh. On the seventh day, when King Ahashversoh was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him--Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Carcas-- to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. But when the attendants delivered the king's command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger."

Vashti was asked to be an object on display and refused. It was beneath her, princess or not. The reason, according to some later scholars, that Vashti takes such a hammering is that Jews had to blame someone for the indignities and injustices they experienced at the hand of royalty. Because Jews of the medieval period often enjoyed a special relationship to the king as servi camerae who paid taxes and enjoyed protection, the relationship between the monarch and the Jews could not be tarnished, even when it contradicted reality. In such instances, it was a lot safer to blame the queen.

I offer another reading based on Esther as comedy rather than tragedy. Throughout history, men know what to do with beautiful women. They do not know what to do with powerful women. The fact that the King must consult his advisors about a private marital spat that then gets "tweeted" out to the whole kingdom to re-establish the security of the husband in every household shows just how comedic this scene is. The midrash had to make her ugly in order for us not to like her. Insecure men suffer at the hands of very secure women. But perhaps one day, in a gender-blind society, influence and kindness will trump both power and beauty.

Happy Purim and Shabbat Shalom!