Purim is a holiday, in short, about a woman (Esther) who lays her life on the line to save her people. Certainly - you could tell it differently: an evil man’s (Haman’s) plot to kill all the Jews and one man’s (Mordechai’s) plan to save his people. However you crack it, it is a story about facing fear, and standing up to evil. To celebrate the occasion, we dress in costume, eat fruit-filled cookies that are supposed to remind us of the Bad Guy’s hat (or ear?), and participate in a rowdy and raucous recounting of the story (think “Rocky Horror Picture Show” style audience-participation). It’s an outrageous revel that shakes off the doldrums of winter at a time when we are commanded to be joyous. The commandment applies not just to Purim alone, but to the entire Hebrew month of Adar (or two months as is the case in a leap year) leading up to the holiday itself.
Jewish tradition suggests that there are two kinds of joy to which we must become attuned this month: Simcha and Sasson. The former, according to the Kabbalists (as noted in Melinda Ribner’s, Kabbalah Month-by-Month) is the kind of joy that we can anticipate: a wedding, graduation, or birth of a child, for instance. Simchas are occasions that we know to look forward to, moments that we circle on the calendar and count the days until they arrive. Sasson on the other hand, is unexpected: the guy in front of you in line at Starbucks paid for your coffee, an unanticipated visit or phone call from an old friend, a patch of blue sky amidst the gray rainclouds. Simcha is joy that holds us up and demands our full attention, but Sasson sneaks up on us, and can even be missed if we’re not looking for it. These kabbalists teach that to fulfill the commandment of being joyous on Purim, and during the month(s) of Adar, is holier than even fasting and asking for forgiveness on Yom Kippur. Perhaps these rabbis understood that joy is sometimes harder to muster than even self-denial and contrition. To be happy on command is no small feat, especially when the candle is already burning at both ends - as it is wont to do. There are moments when, to quote Bilbo Baggins (er, I mean, J.R.R. Tolkein,) “I feel thin...stretched… Like butter scraped over too much bread.” Winter disappears and the flush of Spring catches us in its whirlwind of activity, and if you’re like me, you get caught in it and swept downstream, until suddenly you’re just plain old pooped, making it harder to distinguish between the sacred and mundane, and much harder to spot the Sasson.
Sacred and mundane. Simcha and Sasson. Rabbi Irwin Kula suggests that the Hebrew word for “mundane” (chol) implies a temporary state of emptiness - something that is not-yet-full. We’ve got within us the capacity to reframe our understanding of the tasks that seem pedantic and draining. By choosing to see Sasson - unexpected joy - in the places where we anticipate boredom, we infuse all of our moments with meaning. We should circle those important dates on the calendar, anticipate them with great relish, but not at the cost of noticing joy in the moments-between. Perhaps if I had approached my potential downtime these past few weeks as opportunities for Sasson, instead of as dead-air time, I might not have found myself in the precarious position of being so pooped. So I look to today, to the present moment, and am grateful that I can spend a quiet evening at home - tucked away from the blooming and allergen-filled world outside, powering down for some R&R to prepare for tomorrow - full of the potential of Spring waiting to burst forth into something sacred, something joyful.