November 17, 2018

Seeking joy in the month of Adar

In a year when many of us are feeling varying degrees of political depression, Purim will arrive not a minute too soon.

After absorbing several stories about toppled headstones in Jewish cemeteries and waves of bomb threats at Jewish community centers across the country — including one to the Westside JCC, where my wife and I sent our kids to preschool — I needed something to change my melancholy mask to something happier. To my surprise, the month of Adar, Purim’s place on the Jewish calendar, was it.

Providing reprieve from the day-to-day downer news was the serendipitous proclamation in the Talmud that “When Adar enters, we increase our joy.” To make sure the message stuck, I discovered, there is even a custom of hanging a sign in your home with the saying on it. 

But could just a few words on a piece of paper make anyone happy? Especially in times like these? If finding happiness were that easy, it seems a lot of therapists would be out of work.

However, if a simple sign actually could help move you to a moment of joy, you couldn’t beat the price. And considering that Obamacare may soon be history, I reasoned, we might all need to make something like this work, anyway.

So, a few weeks before Purim, when we read the Megillat Esther — the ancient story of how Esther and Mordecai saved the Jews of Persia from the death sentence decreed by Haman — I decided to issue my own joy decree, with a sign declaring it for all to see. Hoping to chromatically distance myself from a mood of blue, I wrote my sign, which reads “When Adar Begins, We Increase in Joy” — in violet and hot pink. Committed to my new role as joy-seeker, I posted it on the refrigerator and made it the wallpaper for my cellphone and computer. Now, I was happiness-ready.

“Let the simchas roll,” I thought.

Except they didn’t. The sign kept the idea on my mind, all right — I could picture it with my eyes closed, but the wellspring of joy that Adar supposedly promised somehow remained elusive. With every deadline and headline, my happiness goal seemed to get pushed back another day.

Still, the next evening, seeing the sign on the fridge, with it’s bright letters almost pulsing, lit a small flame, and nudged me into trying to cook, an activity that I enjoy. The resulting asparagus stir fry made me smile — and my wife, too — yet, like Chinese takeout, this appetizer of joy left me hungry for something more.

Satisfying my hunger was a passage I found in a kind of Jewish philosophical cookbook called Pirkei Avot, or “Ethics of the Fathers.” “Who is rich?” it asked. “He who is happy with his lot,” came the answer, leading me to consider that the next time I get out the wok, I should focus more on the joy of the moment: my ability to experience the sound, the smell and the taste of cooking. As Ecclesiastes suggests, “There is nothing better for a person than to rejoice in his work.”

The next day, under the influence of my sign, I tried a different tack, going out into the backyard to check out our blooming blueberry bushes. Imagining how sweet they would taste in pancakes only withered, however, into recalling that after the berries began to ripen, I would need to do battle with the birds, who were as excited about them as me.

And yet, I was reminded of the wisdom of Rav Yerucham Levovitz in his work “Sefer Chochmah uMussar,” in which he states, “A truly happy person does not allow his happiness to be dependent on any external factor over which he may not have control.” I suspect he would have told me to forget about the birds, but there they were, still fluttering up my joy.

Looking for something over which I did have control, I turned to the orderliness of my prayer book. There I found Ashrei, a prayer that I have read many times on Shabbat morning. “Happy are those who dwell in Your house,” it begins. Though this verse, taken from Psalm 84, clearly suggests that happiness comes from dwelling in God’s house, reading it during my quest for joy made me wonder how I could make myself happy in my own spiritual house, as well.

A week later, I had my chance.

The Movable Minyan, an independent congregation that we attend on Shabbat, is completely lay-led. Although Shabbat is supposedly a time of peacefulness, sometimes the minyan is everything but, with a group of busy individuals coming together to lead services, read Torah, give a drash and contribute to a potluck lunch.

Yet, the morning was a joy. Why? Examining our services through the words of my newly found sages of joy, I could see that the efforts of our instrumentalist and service leaders (of which I was one) helped to create an atmosphere of rejoicing, making the morning a real simcha, one where all present could be happy with our lot. And the delicious dairy meal that followed seemed a perfect fit for the rav’s prerequisite for happiness, as the uncoordinated menu was completely out of our control.

Bringing it all together for me, though, was my experience leading Shacharit, something I have done for years. When it came time for singing El Adon, which speaks to the grandeur of nature and its Creator, my eyes moved over to the English translation and I saw the words, “Rejoicing” and “gladly,” as if for the first time. This time, I took it as a sign.