"When Adar enters joy increases" - Talmud Bavli Ta'anit 29a. This statement can sound jarring given that here in the U.S. the pandemic is still raging with thousands dying every day. As non-intuitive as it may sound, joy is exactly the trait that can be most useful as we come upon one full year of COVID-19.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (d. 1812, Ukraine) teaches that a mitzvah done with joy, meaning done for the simple pleasure of doing the mitzvah, endows one with the ability to know how to pray for the world. One of our Ovdim Cohort members explained this teaching to mean that when we feel joy we are tapping into the reality of the world as it can and should be, sometimes called “the world to come.” Having an embodied, felt sense of this world puts in stark relief the way the world is now and gives moral clarity about how to pray for this gap to be closed and the world to be as it should.
Different times call for different tactics to get to this world as it could be, and tapping into joy can help us know what is needed. We see an example of this in the Purim story, where Mordechai uses one tactic and Esther another. According to Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzofsky (d. 2000, Israel) Mordechai’s source of joy is his deep Bitachon/Trust that gives him the holy chutzpah not to bow down to Haman. Mordechai just would not believe that God would want Haman to be victorious in his genocidal plans and he expressed this by outright defiance of the decree. At times, principled non-cooperation with oppressive laws and systems based on confidence in the justice of our cause may be the needed tactic.
We saw this many times over the past four years with blockades of ICE detention buses, and other advocacy for undocumented neighbors, based on a refusal to accept that this is how our country of immigrants treats its newest arrivals.
Esther used a different tactic. She could sense, perhaps through Mordechai’s joy, that bold defiance would not work to save her people once the decree was sealed by the king. Something different was needed. She called on all the Jews of Shushan to gather together and fast and pray for three days. It was this gathering together, this unity of purpose and desire, that played a key role in averting disaster. Similarly for us, there are times when massive unity of purpose, like during the most recent elections, can avert disaster and move the world a little closer to redemption.
How do we know what is needed? While we can’t know for sure, cultivating the tool of Simcha/Joy, can give us a clearer picture of reality. While harder to access for some than for others, Simcha is the birthright of every human. It can be experienced as a deep feeling of contentment or as a wide open heart and fresh clear attention or as expansive love. In all cases it points to the reality of the universe, hidden by the veils of historic and current trauma and loss. When we embody it we can know with confidence that this is not the way the world is supposed to be. From this clarity we know what to do. Audre Lorde writes in The Uses of the Erotic, “…once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of.” Joy is a compass that points us where to go and a magnet that pulls us towards reality.
This Adar, may we cultivate the felt experience of Simcha as a tool for knowing how to live in this next stage of the pandemic with resilience and moral imagination. May we have the clarity to create something new that honors the reality of the world as it could be. That would really be a cause of Simcha.