March 02, 2017

Joy

“When the month of Adar begins, we increase the amount of joy (simcha),” says the Talmud. What does that word joy mean? If I spend every day in bed or at the gym, or in front of a screen, does that count? The Hebrew word simcha (usually translated as “joy”) needs clarification. It contrasts with pleasure, which usually refers to physical sensations. The Hebrew word that best represents that is hanaah. So what is joy? Should it be more spiritual, cerebral or ethereal? What is meant here?

Adar is the month in which we celebrate Purim. Purim is the one celebration of the Jewish calendar that takes place outside the Land of Israel. It records the victory of Mordecai and Esther over Haman, the Persian chancellor who wanted to kill all the Jews in the empire some two and a half millennia ago. Some think this is the first example of pure anti-Semitism, because Haman’s main reason for getting rid of the all the Jews was pure visceral hatred. The Jews were just different. “Not like us.”

We read the biblical the story of Esther, dress in disguises, give charity, gifts to friends, and have a really whopper meal with songs, rhymes, jokes and charades. All practical things. Does the phrase above mean that we should start doing this right from the beginning of the month and not just on the day itself? But we don’t. So what does it mean?

On the face of it, the word simcha is used in the Torah to describe the pleasure of worshipping God, spiritual, as well as the physical pleasure on festivals. But the Talmud says that you can only have such pleasure from wine and food. Though it adds fancy clothes and jewels for women. The Talmud also says that the real simcha, is when one gets married. Shabbat and festivals do have a long association with marital delights. So does simcha just mean physical delights?

One is bound to wonder why it took the mystical tradition to bring such spiritual experiences to the fore in the language of Jewish religious practice. The Talmud does talk about the ecstasies of prayer, of Rabbi Akivah lost in profound prayer to the point where he loses any sense of time. Prayer can be (sadly, too often it isn’t) a really uplifting and joyful experience. So too can meditation, devekut, feeling close to God, the universe—the goal of all mystics. Shouldn’t this be the primary aim of joy on a festival? Why doesn’t the Megillah mention that?

My theory is that the Torah is concerned, as a constitution, primarily with practical behavior. The festivals were opportunities for pilgrim Jews to come together, to gather in Jerusalem and observe, passively, the ceremonies in the Temple. But they were also expected to bring produce or monetary equivalent to eat and spend together, to share and enjoy. And food to be shared with God, priests, family, and friends was the social adhesive that enhanced a sense of community and people.

When Chapter 24 of Exodus discusses the Sinai Revelation, it mentions those who had a vision of God. They experienced something phenomenal, and promptly sat down to eat and drink. Linking spirituality to materiality makes a lot of sense. One does not negate the other. It values a combination. It is holistic. Even so, it strikes as strange our western binary minds that distinguish spirit from matter.

That is why I suggest that joy, rather than pleasure, is an appropriate word for simcha—because it is much broader. In the month of Adar, we celebrate our survival by giving to the poor, presents to friends, and having a festive meal. These are all positive actions that reinforce a sense of well-being, community, and peoplehood. The goal of religion is to synthesize the relationship between humans and God. Eating together can do this. Of course, one can eat alone and pray alone. But doing it as part of a community stimulates other emotions and relationships.

Celebration can be personal but it has a wider impact if it is communal. Actions are what count. To invite the poor and the stranger. We increase simcha through good deeds. I have always been impressed by the response of the Jews to Haman’s failed decree. Having removed the threat, the Jews share their good fortune with others.

We know the constant threat of annihilation. As Jews, we experience hatred and alienation all the time. It is toxic. If it makes us toxic too, it will have succeeded. But if instead it makes us become grateful for life, sensitive and supportive of others, then goodness overcomes evil instead of submitting to it. The reward for good is more good, and the punishment for hatred is more hatred.

When we feel depressed, inadequate, or inferior, instead of wallowing in it and feeling negative, destructive, and envious, we should get up and do good things, visit the sick, help the poor, increase friendship and love. That is the way to go forward in life. The way to live, rather than narcissism and egoism. That is why, in the lead-up to Purim, when Adar begins, we should be doing good things that will give others and us joy, and make us happy, better people. Simcha is usually linked to the word mitzvah, a command—simcha shel mitzvah. That means action. Doing good things.

But there’s another aspect to this build up towards Purim. We prepare in advance for the somber days of Tishrei and Days of Awe. But just as important is the need to build up towards days of joy. In practice this is usually confined to mystics. But just as we ordinary people experience the physical , so too, we should try to experience the spiritual. Just as we prepare for the serious, so too there is a benefit in preparing and getting into the spiritual mood, in advance, for the joy of Purim.

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