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Toward Shabbat: Mishpatim

משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה
When the month of Adar arrives, we increase in joy. 

—Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 29a

When the month of Adar arrived last year, we did increase in joy, wholeheartedly and unsuspectingly. Four days later, the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in New York City and Adar became the prelude to a horrific year of tragedy and fear. Who could have imagined that increasing in joy, an invitation so eagerly embraced each year, would one day be so hard? Joy does not flow naturally this Adar. With the pandemic still going and with the toll at 2.3 million COVID-19 deaths globally, 470,000 of them in our country, it is not easy to muster the joy. It is not easy to muster the joy with our democracy still deeply wounded by fascistic forces we had not imagined were so powerful and widespread, and which are still lurking around.

Each year, when Adar arrives, the increase in joy anticipates Purim’s celebration of the deliverance of the Jews of Persia from their mortal enemies:

“Mordekhai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, near and far charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year—the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.” (Esther 9:20-22)

This deliverance, however, was not miraculous as the redemption from Egypt. In the Book of Esther there is no outstretched arm of God, no plagues, no parting of the sea. In fact, God’s name is not even mentioned in the Book of Esther. God remains hidden, so to speak, and the world is overtaken by chaos, randomness, and evil. The fate of the Jews of Persia hangs on pure chance, a roll of the dice: The day of their destruction is determined by the casting of lots (“lots” in Hebrew is “purim”).

In the absence of God and of a miraculous rescue, salvation rests purely on Esther’s and Mordekhai’s acumen, courage, and risk-taking. In the depth of the crisis, Mordekhai urges Esther to act:

“Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4:13-14.)

Who knows…”—Mordekhai’s exhortation is the turning point of the story. In the midst of the arbitrariness and the confusion, alone and in dread, Esther becomes fully attuned to her unique call. Through her, God’s redeeming power is unleashed.

The joy of Adar does not come as a response to heavenly miracles, or to the certainty and the safety that a predictable world provides, but rather as a celebration of acts of deep faith and courage displayed in the very midst of uncertainty.

“When the month of Adar arrives, we increase in joy,’ says the Talmud. The Hasidic masters read this statement as follows: “When the month of Adar arrives we increase, in joy.” A subtle move of the comma that shifts the focus.

The month of Adar has arrived today, and we are called to increase. We are called to stretch, to grow, to expand, in courage and hope, in spite of adversity and uncertainty. We are called to stand tall, in defiance of the forces that would have us relent and bend, and sink into despair. We are invited to increase, enthusiastically and joyfully, and to laugh as we rise.

Shabbat shalom and hodesh tov.