In my work as an attorney I have been privileged to help families with estate planning, a process by which people plan for eventualities that will happen after they live a good, long and healthy life. In doing so, I have to raise issues and ask many questions, some more welcome than others.
These include questions that they would rather not ask themselves. … Invariably — even though people come having already gotten over their natural reluctance to consider their mortality, and have given the matter some serious thought — they have not fully considered these eventualities. But these unfortunate possibilities are all too real, and must be faced if they are going to be dealt with responsibly.
It is relatively easy for me to think about these questions from the arm’s-length perspective of an attorney. Especially so as such discussion usually takes place well in advance of problems developing, when one can put some distance between a potential tragedy and the present reality. However, when facing these questions as they happen in the present — whether as a private person or as a Rabbi expected to deliver wise words of consolation in the face of tragedy and suffering — it is another matter entirely.
The last two weeks have been very rough. Against the background of all the difficulties and tension in the world around us — the atrocious horror perpetrated by ISIS, the tragedies in France, the ominous Iranian threat and severe questions about the will of the U.S. administration to counter it — there has been quite a bit of personal tragedy around here. A very respected and central figure in the local Bukharian community, a leader of the Sephardic minyan in our shul, Mr. Aharon Meirov, zt”l, died at a young age. This traumatic death caused enormous pain in the community, and the outpouring of grief was palpable as close to 1,000 people attended a Motzoei Shabbos funeral held in our shul. Speaker after speaker tried to come to grips with the unexplainable. … One grieves and mourns, and attempts to go on, but the disquietude gnaws at the soul.
On a personal note, almost the same day, I learned that a very dear relative … father of nine, including six unmarried children, and known for selfless devotion to many whom he effectively and exceedingly generously helped, was diagnosed with an advanced brain tumor that severely threatens his life. Tehillim are being said, offers to help are coming in, but the angst and sorrowfulness are inevitable, as yet another unforeseeable crisis descends on a frightened family. This in addition to other beloved relatives becoming frail and sick … it is difficult to watch.
And yet … I look forward this week to Purim. The month of joy. Mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simchah — As Adar enters, we must increase our joy.”
I have great trouble wrapping my meager brain around all this. How can one “turn the switch” and begin experiencing joy, in the midst of so much that seems to call for opposite emotions? Is joy something that we can just will upon ourselves, no matter what is happening all around us?
The answer of our tradition is unequivocally — yes. Happiness and joy are a choice, one that we can choose to embody, no matter the circumstances. As the acclaimed book title puts it, Happiness Is a Verb. It is an action, or a set of actions, that we can choose to take in order to bring it upon ourselves. There is a well-known statement by Harav Nachman of Breslov, zy”a, “Mitzvah gedolah l’hiyos b’simchah tamid — It is a great mitzvah to constantly be in a state of happiness.”
Of course, this is easier said than done. But here are some thoughts that might help us get into the Purim spirit, no matter what we have been feeling.
First, although the law quoted above, mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simchah, is well known, the context in which it is stated is more obscure. The Gemara in Taanis 29a states: “In the same way that when Av comes in we lessen our simchah, when Adar enters we increase the simchah.”
A striking parallel is drawn between the joy of Adar and the devastation of Av, of the exhilaration of Purim and the agony of Tishah B’Av. As one, so the other. The same striking language is used in describing blessings on good news and bad news: “One must offer a blessing on negative tidings in the same way as one makes a blessing on the good” (Brachos 54a).
The Sfas Emes (Shekalim 5644) comments on this dichotomy, and says that it all goes back to Yeshayah’s penultimate words about Yerushalayim: “Rejoice with her a rejoicing, all who mourn over her” (66:10).
The joy that we can experience at a time of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, is only that which comes from feeling the pain of the galus, of our terrible distance from G-d, and the true joy that being in His direct presence would bring. All true simchah is “b’Meono — in His House.” We can experience simchah only by reflecting on our distance from that wondrous experience, and in our longing to return to it. It has even been suggested that this is the source of the custom to say mazel tov after breaking the glass at the chuppah — the glass that is broken to remind us of the sorrow of galus — it is only from that place that we can proceed to the joy of the wedding.
Many wise people have come to realize, as M. Scott Peck writes in his book, “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult — once we truly understand and accept it — then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
Our tradition, however, takes this one step further. … We must not only “accept” that life is difficult, but embrace that knowledge in order to achieve simchah. It is not that simchah is an attempt to escape from pain or to hide from the suffering that is integral to the human condition. We make no attempt to forget our troubles, which would be psychologically unhealthy and ultimately futile. Rather, simchah comes from a depth of experience, shaped by positively facing unpleasant circumstances; and finding a balance between a refusal to forget while at the same time overcoming sadness and determining to be joyous.
There are endless stories that teach this message. Stories about Nachum Ish Gamzu, about Rabi Akiva, about Rav Yehudah Halevi, and particularly about many great figures in the chassidic tradition, such as Harav Zusha of Anipoli, who was famous for (among other things) finding joy in circumstances that most would consider miserable.
And then there are stories that make one’s hair stand on end. Such a story is recorded in the Aish Kodesh, where Harav Kalman Kalonymus Shapira, the Rebbe of Piaseczna, Hy”d, told his devotees the following in the Warsaw Ghetto of 1940.
“The Tikunei Zohar writes that Purim and Yom Kippur — which can be read as Yom K’Purim, a day like Purim — are related. Just as we fast and do teshuvah on Yom Kippur because Hashem so decreed; so too is the joy of Purim. It is not only when a person is full of joy that he must have simchah. Rather, even if he is broken-hearted and depressed, his mind and spirit crushed; he is obligated nonetheless to follow the law; there must be at least a spark of simchah allowed to enter his heart.”
Simchah is not optional, the Piaseczna Rebbe explains. Just as on Yom Kippur we must fast even if we have no desire or strength to so do, we must know that on Purim, simchah is an obligation, not an option. It is the avodah that Hashem desires of us in this month, ready or not.
This ethic was captured beautifully by Elie Wiesel in a famous passage from an essay about prayer. He recalled the mitzvah of “v’samachta b’chagecha — you shall rejoice on your festival” (Deut. 16:14). It sounds like a simple, straightforward mitzvah, and yet, the Vilna Gaon regarded it as the most difficult commandment in the Torah, Wiesel says:
“I could never understand this puzzling remark. Only during the war did I understand. Those Jews who, in the course of their journey to the end of hope, managed to dance on Simchat Torah, those Jews who studied Talmud while carrying stones on their back, those Jews who went on whispering zemirot shel Shabbat while performing hard labor — they taught us how Jews should behave in face of adversity. For my contemporaries one generation ago, v’samachta b’chagecha was one commandment that was impossible to observe — yet they observed it.”
Baruch Hashem, with all the difficulties that we face, compared to many other periods of our history — let alone the Holocaust — we ought to bow down every day and thank Hashem for all the blessings in our lives. This is not to minimize the very real pain that we are feeling, but to appreciate all the good that we have and take great joy in it.
May Hashem soon bring the ultimate “turnabout — v’nahafoch hu,” and cause all those who are in worry and distress to find only true joy — the kind of joy that looks at the trouble in the past as being firmly in the past, with no need any longer to plan for any darkness in the future. (I will be happy to find another line of work!) We look forward to His return to Zion, when we will be able to enjoy “laYehudim haysah orah v’simchah v’sasson v’ykar.”
Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer is the Rabbi at Young Israel of Forest Hills.