By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss
In this current Jewish year 5784, on February 9-10, we begin the first of two consecutive months of Adar. Since the 12 months of our lunar Hebrew calendar usually total 354 days, and Jewish holidays need to fall within certain seasons, the rabbis developed a system of “leap years” (which include a second month of Adar) seven times in a 19-year cycle.
The best-known celebration in Adar is the holiday of Purim. During leap years, Purim is celebrated on the 14th of the second month of Adar, which this year will be on March 23-24. On Purim, we dress up in cool costumes based on the characters in the famous story of the beautiful Queen Esther and her clever Uncle Mordechai and generally have a lot of fun. In fact, simcha (joy) is one of the major themes of Purim and Adar.
In the Talmud, we are instructed: “When you enter Adar, increase your joy.” Why? Perhaps it’s because Megillat Esther (read on Purim) recounts the salvation of the Jews of Persia when they were facing death at the hands of the evil Haman (“Boooo…”).
In Megillat Esther, the narrative concludes: “For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor.” In Hebrew we say, “La-yehudim hay-ta ora v’simcha, v’sason viykar.” We also chant this passage at the beginning of the Havdalah ceremony that concludes Shabbat.
The rabbis have thus instructed us to celebrate Purim with joy. Shabbat also provides us with a weekly opportunity to experience light and gladness. Even those in mourning are told not to sit shiva on Shabbat and to refrain from wearing clothing reserved for mourning.
Jewish tradition also teaches us that performing a mitzvah (commandment) – particularly one that involves helping another human being in need⎯should bring us great joy. On Purim, we observe the mitzvot of hearing the reading of the megillah, eating and drinking, sharing mishloach manot (gifts of food), and matanot l’evyonim (giving charity to those in need). Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (of blessed memory) wrote: “…joy and sharing are inextricably connected.” When we share what we have with others, a true, deep joy fills our hearts and souls.
The cycle of life will inevitably bring each of us joy and sorrow, individually as well as within our Jewish communities. We are commanded to comfort people in our community who have lost loved ones and support them in their time of mourning. It is also a mitzvah to rejoice in others’ life-cycle celebrations and rituals including britot milah (circumcisions), baby-namings, b’nei mitzvah, and weddings.
As we approach the happy month(s) of Adar, let us do all we can to fulfill the mitzvot of celebrating with joy and giving to those in need. This mitzvah goes beyond monetary contributions. Writing a check and donating food or clothing are wonderful ways to fulfill our obligation to others, and I highly encourage it! However, being physically and emotionally present for people in their times of grief and need as well as in their times of joy is also an essential part of nurturing a truly caring community.