Image: A figure in a Venice Carnival mask. With his three-cornered hat, he could be the villain Haman! (xxxmax/Pixabay.)
I was born in the month of Adar. About 20 years ago I decided that I wanted a new last name to mark a new chapter in my life. It seemed logical to choose “Adar,” since it was the month in which I was born. However, a famous line from the Talmud gave me pause.
משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה
When Adar enters, joy increases. — Taanit 29a
I resolved that if I was going to take the name Adar as my own, I had to take this famous teaching about the month of Adar very seriously. I needed to live life in such a way to affirm and not contradict it. A line from the Mishnah has been my guide in this matter:
שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע. אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה, וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת:
Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance.”
I loved the fact that the speaker in this case was grumpy old Shammai. He understood that it was no easy thing to greet everyone cheerfully every day. However, if he could do it, then I could certainly try to learn this mitzvah.
But Adar is not always a joyful month. This Adar, Adar 5778, began with a tragedy: a young man took an assault weapon and killed 17 people in Florida. Many of them were Jews, for whom Adar is supposedly a “joyful” and “lucky” month. Unfortunately, Feb 14 and the month of Adar will never again be a time of joy for their families.
24 years ago, in Adar 5754, a Jewish physician and IDF reservist named Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Israel. He murdered 29 Muslims at prayer, and wounded 125 others. His actions set off a wave of violence in the West Bank. Mainstream rabbis and politicians condemned his actions, and the State of Israel took steps to see to it that in future Muslims and Jews could both pray in peace at the holy site.
I was still very new to Talmud study when I changed my name. I knew the saying, “When Adar enters, joy increases” but I did not know the context of the saying. It is an important principle of text study to pay attention to context, never more so than in this case.
As you can see above, the line appears in Taanit, “Fasts,” the volume of Talmud having to do with days of fasting. If you look at the page on which the line about Adar appears, you will see that it comes only at the bottom of the page. What preceded it is a long list of disasters that have befallen the Jewish people during the month of Av. The line about Adar is almost an afterthought, mentioned in contrast to the horrors mentioned before it.
There is nothing magic about the month of Adar. It has the reputation of being “lucky” and “happy,” mostly from the association with Purim, but in fact bad things happen in Adar, too. So why talk about Adar as a time of joy? Is it just superstition?
Adar and Purim are a reminder that we are not helpless in the face of tragedy. In Esther, the Jews fought back and survived. The ninth chapter of Esther is not a pretty story – the Jews fought back hard and killed a lot of Persians. That chapter is there to remind us that fighting back is not a happy fantasy; it is mostly an ugly necessity.
The rabbis insist (at the beginning of tractate Megillah) that we must, must, must read the story every year because they wanted us to remember to stand up for ourselves in the face of evil. They wanted us to realize that Purim wasn’t a party; it was a struggle against evil, and it cost a terrible price.
This Adar, this Purim, I encourage us all to think about how we will fight back against the wave of school shootings over the past 20 years (Columbine was in April, 1999.) We are commanded in Leviticus:
לֹא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃
Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not stand upon the blood of your fellow: I am the Eternal. – Leviticus 19:16
Many, many innocent children have died or been maimed by these shootings, and it is long past time that we began fighting back against them. Whatever our opinions about the Second Amendment, surely we can agree that these shootings must stop.
- If you believe that NRA lobbyists are to blame, demand that your lawmaker stop taking contributions from the NRA.
- If you believe that better security in the schools is the answer, write your lawmaker and insist that funds be allocated for security measures.
- If you believe that better mental health care is the answer, write your lawmaker and insist on free mental health care for anyone who needs it.
- If you think the above three are not good ideas, ask yourself: what am I going to do?
If you want to make a public commitment to doing something in particular, you can use the Comments section to do so.
And don’t forget the words of Shammai: “say little and do much” – talk is cheap. Insist on more than talk from public officials. We must insist on doing more than talking inside our circles of agreement: we must call, we must write, we must vote, we must show up to make our point. Social media is a means, not an end to action.
Purim is not just a children’s party. Listen to its call and take action! Take action so that in future there might be joy.