What’s this next Jewish holiday about? It’s what they’re all about: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.
The upcoming holiday of Purim has an even stronger message of resilience, though. In fact, we begin to anticipate it, practicing our capacity for joy in the face of tragedy and resilience despite historical trauma, as soon as we enter the Hebrew month in which it falls, Adar. Linking this topsy-turvy Adar holiday of a failed plot to destroy the Jewish people to the actual destruction of the Jerusalem Temple marked during the month of Av, the rabbis taught:
Just like as soon as Av has entered, we decrease in happiness, so too as soon as Adar has entered, we increase in joy (simcha). (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 29a)
כשם שמשנכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה כך משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה
Why increase in joy as the days until the reliving of an experience of attempted genocide decrease? What’s joyful about gathering the whole clan together, elders to infants, and saying, Let us in great detail recall the story of a jealous and powerful enemy, an ordinary man with too much power, who tried to facilitate our mass murder at the hands of our neighbors.
Brene Brown considers joy the “most terrifying” human emotional experience. In our scarcity-mentality culture, we’re fearful that any joy will be immediately ripped from our lives. Perhaps this is a Jewish impulse, too — after all, many of us have the habit of quickly adding keynahara, a Yiddish phrase that attempts to stave off the “Evil Eye,” the force that seeks to erase and reverse our fortune and joy. Joy makes us vulnerable; it exposes what matters to us, what’s precious to us. “When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability,” Brown argues, “joy becomes foreboding.”
“We’re trying to dress rehearse tragedy so that we can beat vulnerability to the punch,” Brown wisely notes.
Well, the Jewish people have been dress rehearsing (and experiencing) tragedy for generations upon generations. Why do we celebrate holidays, like Purim, that relive and dramatize — quite literally, with costumes and pageants — our near-annihilation? How can we do so when certain politicians accuse our people of causing any number of disasters around the globe? How can we do so when the horrific phrase “6 Million Weren’t Enough” appears blatantly and so-called “proudly” in the U.S. Captiol?
The late and great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called the Jewish joy of Purim, and of this month of Adar which we’re about to enter, “therapeutic joy”:
“On Purim the Final Solution was averted. But it had been pronounced. Ever afterward, Jews knew their vulnerability. The very existence of Purim in our historical memory is traumatic.”
And yet, the Jewish people enter the month of Adar by increasing and increasing our joyfulness, not by pretending nothing tragic has ever happened or will ever happen again. We are not a people of denial or of toxic positivity. We are snarky and superstitious and critical, and we are grateful and joyful and attentive to our history. At least, that’s what our calendar and our holidays and our traditions encourage and foster.
One who welcomes the month of Adar increases in joy.
One who says, Bring it on, those who would continue to dehumanize us and denigrate us. We’ve seen this before. We’ve met villains like you, extraordinary ones and banal, insidious ones, too. And you know what? We survive. Our traditions survive. Our people survives.
On Purim, we eat cookies that mimic the shape of our evil enemy’s hat. We dress in costume. We fondly mock our communal leaders and parody popular culture and politics through the story of Esther and her bravery.
The Jewish people survive because we are vulnerable. And joyful. And resilient. So, as Adar enters, join me in joy: Whether you are Jewish or not, what has your family, your community, your people, survived? Sing the songs of your past, and if those songs have been erased, write new ones. Build joy and amplify joy.