Purim: What does the month of Adar Bet bring us?

We turn the tables upside down to help us realize that though the Jewish people have been frequently downtrodden time and again, so we have arisen.

 GERTRUDE ELION: Spoke up when necessary (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
GERTRUDE ELION: Spoke up when necessary
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Life is an arrow – therefore you must know what mark to aim at, how to use the bow, then draw it to the head and let it go!” – Henry Van Dyke

This year is what the month of Second Adar is all about – “what mark we want to aim at,” then to “let it go.” As this month begins, we shout out the noted Talmudic statement, Mi she’nihnas Adar marbim b’simha – enter Adar and make the days therein joyful. We turn the tables upside down to help us realize that though the Jewish people have been frequently downtrodden time and again, so we have arisen. Moreover, if we focus only on the joy, we miss the month’s uniqueness.

One aspect of the meaning of Adar derives from its seventh day, because on that day Moses was born and also died. How many people have the great distinction of concluding life exactly on the day his life began? Why did God make this occur?

One rabbi suggested that like the rest of Moses’s life, the end also had to have special meaning. Moses saw the burning bush; Moses brought about the Ten Plagues to afflict the Egyptians; Moses led the people out of Egypt and across the Red Sea; Moses helped defeat the Amalekites; Moses received the Ten Commandments.

It would be easy to suggest, for all else he had accomplished, that Moses could not make mistakes, could not challenge God and could not die. But the mistakes of our great leader were quite visible and we can even witness those moments when he said to God, “this is not right or fair.”

moses painting 521 (credit: freechristimages.org)
moses painting 521 (credit: freechristimages.org)

Incredibly, when Moses died, he was all alone. Whereas Aaron had the entire nation mourning for him, a very small group – perhaps only Joshua – said goodbye to Moses. 

Aside from all that Moses did, he left us the written Torah, which we read every week as well as on holidays. From the Torah, we discover the foundation of all of the 613 mitzvot.

THE MEGILLAH of Esther, left to us by Mordechai and his school, is only read twice a year – on the night and the morning of Purim – with a lot of noise to boot. However, just like the Torah, the megillah transmits to us not just a great adventure story, but also instructions on how we should act in our lives.

US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes reminded us that “it is not so much where we stand, but in what direction we are moving.” That is why Adar is so important to us. We are given a direction in which to move.

A lesser-known Jewish Nobel Prize winner from the US is the late Gertrude (Trudy) Elion, whose award was in the field of physiology and medicine. She died on the 6th of Adar, one day before the date of Moses’s death, in 1999.

She phrased her general insights in a way that they each hit their target. When she was about to begin studying at Hunter College in New York, she was not sure what her major should be. “I had no specific bent toward science,” she once said, “until my grandfather died of cancer just before I entered college. I decided nobody should suffer that much.”

Her love of learning and discovering medications motivated her. “The idea was to do research, find new avenues to conquer, new mountains to climb,” she said. When she won her Nobel Prize in 1988, she stood out among all the male awardees because of the glow of genius she reflected, even though she had never earned a PhD.

Like Esther of the megillah, Trudy Elion spoke up when it was most necessary. In the late 1930s, women in the US were rarely given the opportunity to participate in major scientific research. She worked as a secretary, a high school teacher and a lab assistant. But then World War II broke out. The men had gone to war; the women had a chance.

In her first position as an analytical chemist, she did “major” research on the acidity of pickles and the color of mayonnaise. Her superiors quickly realized how talented she was, and gave her much more difficult problems to solve.

The major part of her career was spent at the Burroughs Welcome pharmaceutical company. Over four decades she was granted 42 patents for medications. “She developed the first cure for leukemia; she created a cure for malaria, viral herpes, gout as well as the first drug, AZT, to halt AIDS in the body,” according to a statement about some of her achievements from the US National Academy of Sciences.

At the presentation of one of her awards, this was said: “Her brilliance, determination, stubbornness brought her to the top of her profession.” 

The philosophy of this Adar Nobel can envelop us all with a sincere desire to succeed no matter what stands in our way.

NOW LET us move to the Adar spirit, which characterizes the holiday of Purim. The Jewish calendar is unique because it is so multifaceted. Each time we approach the new month when Rosh Hodesh arrives, we look closely at what lies ahead in the next 29 or 30 days. In Adar, aside from the special Torah and haftorah readings that lead up to Passover, our focus is on Purim.

Once, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, a noted Conservative American rabbi, wrote about Purim in a most informative fashion. Initially, he tried to understand why the holiday had such an impact. “Despite the aspersions [it was almost not included in the Bible] that were cast on Purim, this spiritual vagabond of questionable legitimacy, the Jews welcomed Purim with a warmth and a gaiety they did not lavish upon the more austere holidays with untainted pedigrees.” Yes, what a holiday this has become, for each of us.

Then the rabbi, a noted Zionist, linked the Jewish people with the Adar holiday. “Perhaps the Jew could more readily identify with Purim because he too, was considered a vagabond among the nations, he too was vilified, he too had legitimacy challenged. Whatever the reason, the Jew welcomed Purim into his home and heart, and made its arrival the occasion for a degree of merrymaking he never permitted himself in the presence of the more respectable visitors.”

Using his military lingo, the rabbi stressed that “this holiday, in spite of its humble rank among the festivals, this buck private among the brass, received a thunderous reception from our people.” 

We see in the megillah how Mordechai stood up against the edict of Haman that was meant to destroy us. Through the years, the Jew has taken his ancestor’s lead and has been the perpetual dissenter against every political and religious totalitarianism.

Mordechai made the point that every Jew is responsible for every other Jew. He even warned Esther, “do not think that you will escape [the edict] in the king’s house more than all the Jews.” When a nation was out to kill us, we could not escape this common fate. They sought to get us all, no matter where we stood.

The message of Purim in Adar must never be forgotten. Let us be “strengthened by the bright hope and faith of the holiday.” Maimonides took Purim so seriously that he wrote: “When the Messiah comes, all the holidays will be abolished except Purim.” 