Tradition today: A time to rejoice

The happiness of Purim in the mirror of tradition.

A PURIM street carnival in Holon in 2015 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A PURIM street carnival in Holon in 2015
‘Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy” are the opening words of a popular song composed by Harold Arlen, the son of a hazan (cantor). The words are quite appropriate for this season of the year, since tradition has it that once Adar begins marbim b’simha – we should increase our happiness and rejoice as we approach Purim.
Twice a year the Jewish holiday calendar tells us specifically to rejoice and be happy. The first time is Sukkot, which is called a “season of rejoicing”: “And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). “You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities... and you shall have nothing but joy” (Deuteronomy 16:14-15). The rabbis attached the title “the season of our rejoicing” to Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret.
Adar, the month of Purim, is the second time when we are called to rejoice. The Book of Esther describes Purim as “a day of joy and feasting” (9:18, 19). Mordecai decreed that Jews should observe Adar as a month “which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and joy” (Esther 9:22).
Each of these holidays represents a different picture of what it means to rejoice.
The rejoicing on Sukkot comes as a result of experiencing a successful harvest season. It is therefore an expression of thanksgiving to God for the gifts of nature. The American holiday of Thanksgiving is based on the same idea.
As time went on, the simha of Sukkot expanded even further. In the days of the Second Temple the celebration of Simhat Beit Hashoeva, the water-drawing festival, which celebrates the beginning of the rainy season, was created. The Mishna says, “Whoever has not seen the rejoicing at the Water-Drawing ceremony has never seen rejoicing!” (Sukka 5:1). It is described as a time of dancing with lighted torches, singing accompanied by innumerable musical instruments and continual sounding of trumpets.
Later, in the Geonic period, Simhat Torah was inaugurated as a time to rejoice because of the conclusion of the yearly cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of the new cycle. Being able to read the Torah is a cause of happiness. All of these celebrations are God-centered, expressing the joy that comes from the blessings God gives us through nature and through the gift of God’s word – the Torah.
The rejoicing at the Purim season is quite different. It is carnival-like – dressing up, masquerading, feasting and drinking even to excess – a world in which everything is topsy-turvy. We turn ourselves inside out and become something that we are usually not. It is a release of inhibitions, almost wildness, based on celebrating victory over our enemies.
There is certainly nothing solemn about it, and even though we pray and praise God in our services, the book on which it is based is the only work in the Scriptures that never mentions God at all.
Everyone has a good time by stepping out of character. When a people has experienced so many difficulties, so many defeats, so much oppression, as Jews have done so often through the ages, there is indeed a need for a time for letting go. I’m sure psychologists can explain that phenomenon. When you finally win after so many losses, it is time to simply let go.
THE JEWISH year evokes many different feelings. Much of it is solemn, such as the High Holy Days, which are called “Days of Awe.” Yom Kippur is especially so, a time when we are asked to afflict ourselves, but this is followed immediately by Sukkot and its command to “have nothing but joy.”
Passover and Shavuot are also celebrations, but of a more somber nature. We have days of mourning, such as Tisha Be’av, and days of celebration, such as Hanukka. And then the over-the-top joy of Purim.
It should be noted, however, that the idea of rejoicing is not restricted to Sukkot and Purim. As we read in Psalm 100, “A psalm of thanksgiving: Raise a shout for the Lord, all the earth; worship the Lord in happiness; come into His presence with shouts of joy.” The hassidic movement was quite right to try to emphasize joy and happiness in Jewish worship.
Judaism is not a dour religion. It is certainly not all somber and solemn. It is unfortunate that all too often people see it that way and are turned off by what they perceive as too many negative demands – what you cannot do and what you cannot eat.
In Israel some people dismiss religious Judaism and view it negatively because of the mixture of religion and politics, the fights over legislation that is rightly seen as coercive. They also resent the power that is given to an official Chief Rabbinate over marriage and family status. Reading the daily newspaper gives the impression that life is a constant struggle between the religious and the secular.
But we should not confuse Judaism with what is essentially a power- based system created by a secular legislative body. This is politics, not religion. It is certainly not Judaism. The sooner we learn to separate the two, the sooner we will be able once more to appreciate the wonders of the Jewish tradition, a tradition that wants to bring joy and happiness into our lives even at times when things are difficult and bleak. Just at such times it is important to be happy, to increase our happiness and rejoice.
The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. He is a two-time winner of the Jewish Book Award, whose latest book, Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS) has recently been published in Hebrew by Yediot Press and the Schechter Institute.