A Commandment to Rejoice?

February 5, 2014
Some rejoicing is quiet and low-key, like a nap.

Some rejoicing, like a nap, is quiet and low-key.

When Adar enters, joy increases. – B. Taanit 29a

How can rejoicing be a commandment? We are commanded to rejoice on Shabbat and at “appointed times,” and to rejoice during the month of Adar – but how is such a thing possible? Isn’t joy an emotion?

The Torah has many subtle lessons about human psychology. True, when someone is sad, telling them, “Be happy!” or worse yet, “Smile!” is stupid and cruel. However, what the Torah commands is not emotion. The commandment is to engage in activities that bring delight (oneg.) On Shabbat, we are commanded to eat well, to eat three meals, to light candles, to say blessings, and to rest. These are also activities that will help to reduce the stress in our bodies. Good food in reasonable quantities can be enormously restorative. Lighting candles delights the eyes. Saying blessings encourages us to notice things outside ourselves, to wake up to tastes and smells and experiences. And most of all, rest is healing to the whole person, body and spirit.

During Adar, we are preparing for Purim, and after Purim, we are preparing for Passover. The anticipation of holidays can bring joy, true, but as we get ready to perform the specific mitzvot of Purim, our potential for joy increases.  We plan and prepare mishloach manot, small gifts of food for friends and strangers. Thinking about the enjoyment of others can carry us out of ourselves and distract us from troubles that may have occupied our minds.  Tzedakah is a mitzvah of Purim, another mitzvah that takes us outside our own troubles (and it is good to remember that while it is good to give charity, we are forbidden to give beyond our means!) The “festive meal” again involves good food, a restorer of health and energy. And finally, reading the megillah (Scroll of Esther) reminds us of a time when Jews faced a terrible fate, and it did not come to pass. It can be a reminder that our worst fears do not always come true.

Mourners are not expected to party. Rather, days of rejoicing give them a break from the activities of mourning (shiva, etc). When we see a kriah ribbon or a torn jacket, the rest of us know that this person needs to be treated gently, that they are not in a festive mood. Still they participate in the delight of the day, such as the Shabbat meal, because ultimately the purpose of the mourning period is to draw the mourner gently back into the life of community.

When you hear someone talk about oneg Shabbat, the delight of Shabbat, know that it doesn’t necessarily mean “delight” in the giggly, partying sense. Shabbat is not a magic Wonderland. It is a chance to rest, to heal, to gather our resources, to be with friends and family, to be restored. Sometimes that will look like a party and but usually it will be much quieter.

And if you have heard someone say, “When Adar enters, joy increases” but you do not feel the least bit joyful, know that you are not doing anything wrong. This is just the beginning of Adar! So you are starting a little low. Observe the mitzvot of the season: give a little tzedakah, prepare small gifts of food for friends, make plans to hear the megillah, join in the festive activities and meals at synagogue.

Or, if traditional mitzvot are not your thing, try “rejoicing” by treating yourself with love and care. Eat well. Exercise regularly. Look beyond yourself (yes, give a little tzedakah!) But either way, see what a month mitzvot and self-care will do.

We begin Adar in the depth of winter, and we emerge to spring. Let me know how it goes.

Image: LicenseAttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by mhofstrand


Does Two Adars mean Two Purims?

February 4, 2014
Adar Alef and Adar Bet?

Adar Alef and Adar Bet?

5774 is a leap year. The good news is that we have two months of Adar, two months of rejoicing! But does that mean that we also celebrate Purim twice?

The simple answer: no. If you look closely at your Jewish calendar, the first month of Adar (Adar Alef or Adar Rishon) lists the 14th of Adar I as “Purim Katan” or “Little Purim.” This acknowledges the date, 14 Adar, but we do not celebrate Purim on that date: no megillah reading, no mishloach manot, and no festive meal.

You may wonder why the first month of Adar gets such a shabby treatment. Purim is fun! Why put it off? First, tradition: we know from the Mishnah (Megilah 6b) that we’ve been reading the megillah in the second month of Adar since at least 200 CE. Secondly, the Gemara tells us that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught that we read the megillah in the second month of Adar so that we are celebrating the redemption of Purim closer to the redemption of Passover.

This reminds us that Purim is not just about costumes and skits and merriment: it is also a festival of redemption, “warming us up” for the great redemption of Passover.

And as for Purim Katan: we are still forbidden to mourn or to fast on 14 Adar I. In a leap year, then, we have  a warm up to the warm up, a double opportunity to be extremely well prepared for the spiritual growth of Passover.

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Alaskan Dude


Why Two Months of Adar?

February 1, 2014
Jewish calendar, showing Adar II between 1927 and 1948

Jewish calendar, showing Adar II between 1927 and 1948

If you have a Jewish calendar, you may have noticed that yesterday and today we celebrated Rosh Chodesh Adar Aleph, the first day of the month of Adar Aleph (Adar One). Next month is Adar Bet (Adar Two).  Why two months of Adar? Last year we had only one.

The Jewish calendar is both a lunar and a solar calendar. That means that it is aligned with both the moon and the sun. Our months are aligned with the moon – every Rosh Chodesh (new month) falls on a New Moon. The average lunar month is equal to 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes. The average solar year is equal to 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 45.51 seconds. If we stayed on a strictly lunar calendar, our holidays would slowly rotate around the seasons, as they do in the Islamic calendar. However, our holidays align to the seasons: Passover to springtime, for instance.

To keep the holidays in their proper seasons, the calendar adjusts periodically. One of the ways it does this is by adding a month of Adar whenever Passover strays too far from springtime. In ancient times, this was done by observations and adjustments announced by the Temple. Since the 4th century, we use a mathematic formula to determine when to add a month of Adar. If you are interested in the math, there are articles online that go into detail, but most Jews simply use a calendar.

But… why Adar? Why not Cheshvan or Av? Adar is the last month of the year (when you use the Biblical calendar, which counts Nisan as the first month.) So we are doubling the month at the end of the year.

However, it’s an interesting choice. Av and Adar have special associations, with Av as the “saddest/unluckiest month of the year” and Adar as the “happiest/luckiest month of the year,” drawing from the sacred days in them. In Av we remember the destruction of the Temple. Who wants to do that twice? But Purim falls during Adar, when we remember our deliverance from the evil plans of Haman. That’s worth remembering twice! (So you might well ask, do we celebrate Purim twice? See tomorrow’s post.)

The calendar is teaching us a subtle message: when we have the opportunity to dwell on something, choose joyful memories. It’s an extension of the commandment to “choose life” [Deuteronomy 30:19.]

I wish you joyful months of Adar in 5774!

Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


Why I Don’t Have a Christmas Tree

December 25, 2013
christmas at home

This is not my house. (Photo credit: rzperllian)

My last Christmas tree was in about 1992, I think. My elder son asked me why we had one if we weren’t Christians. I had not identified as Christian for about seven years, and I decided he had a point. I never celebrated Christmas again in my home.

The kids did not seem to miss it. Their birthdays both fell right after Christmas, and they’d always been overshadowed by that other guy’s birthday. From that year onward, I focused on a big celebration of their birthdays.  They got presents, we had cake, and it was good.

So when I became a Jew, Christmas was easy: I’d not been observing the holiday for years. For me it had been a religious holiday, and once the religion dropped away, I discovered that we could enjoy other people’s decorations. When people asked about it usually Aaron would pipe up with, “We’re not Christians.”  My younger son enjoyed celebrating with Christian relatives, and that was fine too.

So when I discovered that some Jews have Christmas trees, I was a little confused. Why do something at considerable trouble and expense while insisting that it doesn’t mean anything? I’ve never completely figured out the answer to that one.

Now that I’m a Jew, I celebrate Chanukah. I like the idea of a festival of rededication, especially at a time of the year when Jewishness seems to disappear into the dazzling show. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the officious folk who sniff that it “isn’t a Torah holiday.” Partly that’s because they don’t act so sniffy at Purim, which isn’t a Torah holiday either. And partly it’s because I think there’s something in the human spirit that cries out for shining lights and gathering when the nights are long and longer.

I still love those bright shining lights, whether they are for Chanukah or Christmas. My neighborhood is full of lights, and I love them all. But my home is a Jewish home, and I can’t imagine putting up a symbol of someone else’s holiday. This is my mikdash me’at, my little sanctuary, and I work to make it bright and beautiful with Jewish symbols and customs, sweet and savory with Jewish smells.

Those are bright enough, sweet enough, and  warm enough: good enough for me!

 


Purim for Beginners

February 16, 2013
English: Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest No...

Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest Normand, c. 1915 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are new to synagogue, Purim is either a treat or a shock, maybe both. It’s a holiday based in the Biblical book of Esther, which is such a wild, farcical document that it very nearly didn’t get included in the Bible. Here’s what you need to know:

1. WHEN? Purim falls on 14 Adar. In a leap year, it falls on 14 Adar II. There may be something called Shushan Purim on your Jewish calendar, but you only need to worry about it if you live in a walled city such as Jerusalem. For conversion to the secular calendar, check a Jewish calendar.

2. THE STORY For the whole megillah [scroll] read the Book of Esther in the Bible. The short version: The Jewish community in Persia is nearly annihilated when King Ahasuerus’s chief minister, Haman, takes a dislike to them. The king’s queen, Esther, is secretly a Jew and she intervenes to save the day.  The full story, in the Bible, is at least R-rated for both sex and violence, but in most American synagogues what you will hear is the G-rated version edited for children’s ears.

3.  MITZVAH 1 – HEAR THE STORY. We are commanded to hear the story every year. We fulfill that mitzvah either by hearing the scroll chanted or by seeing it acted out in a Purim Shpiel, with lots of audience participation. It is traditional to drown out the name of the villain, Haman, with noisemakers like groggers or with boos.

4. MITZVAH 2 – FESTIVE BANQUET. We are commanded to enjoy a festive meal on Purim. One theme for the holiday is feasting – if you read the story, you’ll notice there are lots of parties in it. Hamentaschen are three-cornered filled cookies associated with the holiday.

5. MITZVAH 3 – GIFTS TO POOR PEOPLE. We are commanded to see to it than even the poorest people can enjoy a festive meal – hence, gifts of food to the poor. (A donation to the Food Bank in your area works nicely.)

6. MITZVAH 4 – MISHLOACH MANOT  (Meesh-LOW-ach man-OAT) are small gifts of baked goods, wine, or other goodies, given to friends to enhance their feasting.  Ideally they are a little package of more than one goodie.

7. COSTUMES. Many Jews, both children and adults, wear costumes to synagogue for the Purim festivities.  Often people dress as characters from the Purim story, but pirates, astronauts, and superheroes are good, too.  Some just wear a mask for Purim, because one of the themes of the holiday is secret identities.

8. DRINKING. There is a tradition that one should drink “until one cannot tell Haman from Mordechai” – the bad guy from the good guy. This, too, is a theme from the story but it has too often been taken to excess.  Don’t drink and then drive home from synagogue, or push alcohol on anyone, please. No matter what anyone tells you, getting drunk is never a mitzvah.


Preparing for Passover – Resources

February 15, 2013
Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

I have noticed in the past few days that suddenly lots of people are looking to Google for help preparing for Passover. Traditionally, Passover prep begins at Purim, but in fact, many people start a bit earlier, because it can be a big job.

But… don’t forget to celebrate Purim!  More about that in the days to come.


It’s Adar! Be Happy!

February 10, 2013
English: Har Adar, tulip patch

Har Adar, near Jerusalem, tulip patch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Mishenichnas Adar marbin b’simchah” B.Ta’anit 29a

“When Adar enters, joy increases.”

Today is Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of the month of Adar. Adar is the month of Purim, of good luck, of silly games and pranks. We are commanded to “increase joy” although we are not given any direction about how to go about it.

I have quoted the line above from Ta’anit many times, but I realized I’d never studied it and had no idea about the context. Today I went to take a look:

“Ta’anit” means “fasts.”  This masechet [book] of the Babylonian Talmud is a compilation of discussions about fast days (with, of course, digressions on those discussions.) Fast days are somber occasions: Yom Kippur [The Day of Atonement] and the Ninth of Av [the memorial of the destruction of the Temple] are the best-known fast days. They are not happy occasions. How did this line about Adar wind up in there?

Sure enough, when I looked it up, the rabbis are in the midst of a sobering discussion about the “curtailment of rejoicings” in the month of Av. There’s a heartbreaking story about the young priests going to the roof of the Temple as it was burning, reaching their arms up to throw the Temple keys into the hands of the angels.  Then the young priests, their duty done, fall into the fire. There is a sad quotation from Isaiah about people dying, and God weeping.

Then a new bit of Mishnah is quoted: “WITH THE BEGINNING OF AV REJOICINGS ARE CURTAILED.”

And the Gamara expounds upon it:

Rab Judah the son of R.Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab:

Just as with the beginning of Ab rejoicings are curtailed, so with the beginning of Adar rejoicings are increased. 

R. Papa said: Therefore a Jew who has any litigation with Gentiles should avoid him in Ab because his luck is bad and should make himself available in Adar when his luck is good. 

To give you a future and a hope: 

Rab Judah the son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab: By this is meant [an abundance of] palm trees and flaxen garments. 

And he said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed: 

Rab Judah the son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab: As the smell of an apple orchard.

… and then the text returns to the grave discussion of the “curtailment of rejoicings” of the month of Av.

There are many possible ways to read this, but what I take from it is that the sadnesses of life are simply facts. There is tzuris [trouble] in every life. But just as this discussion of Adar bursts in upon the discussion of tzuris for a moment, so does the month of Adar burst in upon us in the wettest, most bedraggled bit of winter.  Good surprises burst in upon tired routine: sometimes instead of bad luck, we have good luck. Sometimes a new baby is born, and he smells wonderful. The message: if we are truly devout, we will remain open to the possibilities of those moments.

Adar comes with a command to “increase joy.” To do that, we must stay attuned to the possibility of the sacred moment when laughter breaks through tears, sun through clouds, beauty through the gray winter. If we are paying attention, we will be awake for joy. Adar is the month to cultivate that sacred skill in ourselves. For indeed:

Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.

Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. 

And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:

How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!  [Gates of Prayer]

Happy Adar!  May your joy increase, and may you be awake to it!

May it give you “a future and a hope.”  Amen.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,109 other followers

%d bloggers like this: