About five years ago, a friend introduced me to a marvelous Jewish concept that captured my imagination.
She explained that for the entire month of Adar — the month in which the holiday of Purim falls — Jews are supposed to increase in joy. This concept is rooted in a statement from the Talmud, mishenichnas Adar marbin b’simcha, “When Adar enters, we increase in joy.”
So that year, my friend came over with her family, and our children increased in their joy by baking a rainbow cake. We made colorful signs that said things like, “It’s Adar: Make More JOY!” and we hung them up around the house for the entire month. It was a sweet joyful experience, and I felt grateful for Judaism’s wise reminder to actively cultivate happiness.
I carried the seeds of that experience forward. Two years ago, when Sara Stock Mayo and I produced our region’s first community Purim Shpiel — “Hadassah, A Persian Musical” — one of our explicit goals was to increase our community’s joy. Set to the music of “Hamilton,” our show brought together a diverse group of participants that included congregants from Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform synagogues, as well as members of independent minyans and unaffiliated Jews. While our production involved some serious moments and moving songs, audience members specifically told us how much joy our show had brought them.
This past summer, knowing that the national tour of “Hamilton” would be taking Pittsburgh by storm this January, Sara and I decided to bring back a revival of “Hadassah” and increase our collective joy once again. The timing seemed perfect.
And then Oct. 27 happened.
Now, just months after the largest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, our tradition whispers a challenge to our dear Jewish community: Increase joy. In fact, because we are in a Jewish leap year, we are challenged to increase joy over two months of Adar. In the wake of our community’s devastating tragedy — with its ugly parallels to Haman’s plot in the Book of Esther — the mandate to increase joy suddenly reveals its full power.
At its core, increasing joy isn’t merely about feeling happier.
Instead, increased joy is an act of defiance. It is also an act of necessity that is deeply woven into the fabric of Judaism. In the face of Haman and other evildoers who seek our destruction, we refuse to allow ourselves to succumb to despair. We celebrate, we sing, we laugh, we play.
“The Jewish response to trauma is counterintuitive and extraordinary,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. “You defeat fear by joy. You conquer terror by collective celebration.”
The simcha of Adar, he explains, is not “expressive” joy, where one feels positive about something that has occurred. Rather, the simcha of Adar is what Sacks calls “therapeutic” joy. Confronted with the perils of being Jewish, we dig deep and find the strength to rejoice.
We find echoes of this notion in the world of musical theater as well. As Sheldon Harnick penned in his lyrics for “To Life” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” “G-d would like us to be joyful, even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.”
Joy strengthens us by reminding us what feeds our souls. It enlivens our senses. It reconnects us with ourselves and connects us with others. Perhaps most importantly, joy refuels our spirits for the difficult days that lie ahead. PJC
Elinor S. Nathanson is the co-founder of ShpielBurgh Productions and wrote “Hadassah, A Persian Musical.” Ticket sales benefit Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, New Light, Dor Hadash and the JFCS Squirrel Hill Food Pantry.