These days, being happy is not easy. Reasons to be sad, to be worried, or to be outraged are easy to find – and late winter’s gloomy chill doesn’t do much to lighten the mood. Even as I have heard some say that Tisha B’Av is impossible in Portland Oregon because the weather is so beautiful, Purim’s declaration that we must be happy seems similarly out of step with our real lives. This year, with an extra leap month of Adar (added 7 times in the 19 year cycle of the Jewish calendar) we are fortunate to have twice the days to find our happy place; and find it we must, our tradition insists.
Consider that the Jewish people has been practicing the mitzvah of mi sheh-nikhnas Adar marbim simkha, “when Adar enters, happiness increases” for many generations. It’s fascinating and curious that in the Talmud, the rabbis declare that, when all other holy days have faded into the past, Purim will still be celebrated. On the simple human level, each of us yearns to be happy, each of us needs opportunities for a smile, a laugh, a moment of delight.
Our parashat hashavua, (Torah reading for the week) is called Pekudey, meaning “records,” from the word for taking account of people, or things. It might be translated along the same lines as “noticing.” In it we are offered a way to learn what it might mean to fulfill the mitzvah of being happy while at the same time not turning away from the reality of one’s life.
This parashah describes in great detail an amazing and joyful event. The mishkan, built with love and freewill offerings by the Israelite community, is completed, and it glows with the Presence of the holy. Every Israelite “whose heart so moved” brought their heart’s offering. All were needed; all were welcomed. They were still escaped and homeless slaves, but they found happiness in together building their sacred space.
It’s important to notice that each offering was different, and all were necessary, just as we are all different, and to the extent that we seek to bring our heart’s gifts to our common space, we are building a space of joy and uplift. If you are not happy in the work, it’s a pretty good sign that you are in the wrong place.
The command to “Be Happy, It’s Adar” is really a way to remind each one of us every year to notice how we are doing. Are you capable of moments of delight? How’s your happiness quotient? You are given the gift of life; there is no rehearsal and no do-over as far as we know. The Jewish tradition of optimism and belief in the perfectibility of this world, the insistence that we are not allowed to despair, requires us to do the best we can in this life to be happy – or at least to do the best we can not to be unhappy for one moment longer than necessary.
Most days, we don’t do this by conquering the world or overthrowing the system. Most days, we do this by noticing a flower, a bird, a kindness. In 1998 the Dave Matthews band released a song in which he sang
We need the light of love in hereDon’t beat your headDry your eyesLet the love in thereThere’s bad timesBut that’s OKJust look for love in itAnd don’t burn the day away ((full lyrics here)
Don’t burn the day. It could be your happiest one. Notice it, notice every gift and every opportunity for gratitude, and for the love you are able to give and receive. This, it seems to me, is a way to understand the urgency of Purim, and its eternal significance. May it touch you despite all that challenges us when we simply try to feel the wholeness that is our original and our natural state.