A Profoundly Joyful but Muted Adar

It is considered mandatory (Taanis 26b) to increase our joy with the arrival of the month of Adar. However, this year, Adar and especially Purim itself may carry a completely opposite connotation.

Although for most of the world, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic is associated with a particular month – March 2020 – for us it will always be remembered in conjunction with Purim. I can never forget that some people who sat at my table for a mesibas Purim last year were in the hospital just a day later, some apparently close to death with the mysterious new disease. By a series of miraculous events, all survived, boruch Hashem, but as we now know, not all were so fortunate.

It cannot be a coincidence that given the rare occurrence of a Friday Purim, this year does not lend itself to the usual Purim day celebrations. We have an early seudas Purim, Shabbos arrives soon as well, and our rejoicing must be curtailed. This works out well for those of us who, despite being vaccinated and attending regular minyanim, are still wearing masks and being careful of social distancing. However, everyone is minimizing this year, if only because of requirements of the calendar. It is also impossible to forget that this year, so close to Adar and Purim, we have suffered the loss of several ziknei hador who were pillars of our generation. Perhaps the message is clear, and yet, there may be an even more subtle and enduring lesson this Adar.

Listening to last week’s parsha, we annually develop a new appreciation for Yisro’s wisdom and devotion to Am Yisroel. Yet, the Medrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos 18:27) levels a criticism at him as well. Quoting the words of Shlomo Hamelech (Mishlei 14:10), “the heart knows its own bitterness and no stranger will share in its joy,”

Chazal accuse Yisro of sitting “tranquilly in his land while the Jews were suffering, yet he wanted to come and enjoy the glory of Mattan Torah.” This rebuke of an otherwise praiseworthy figure alerts us to the special prerogative of those who have suffered to celebrate. Yet, on the other hand, the Torah teaches us that there is a certain sense of decency in avoiding public celebration when others are in mourning.

Along these lines, we also learned last week that Moshe Rabbeinu did not name his first son in gratitude for having been saved from Paroh because there were still many Jews who were mourning over their children who were slaughtered by Paroh for the evil intention of bathing in their blood (Seforno). Noach, too, muted his gratitude at having been saved miraculously on the teivah because all around him was the devastation of a destroyed world.

Rav Shneur Kotler used to tell the story about the scrupulous avoidance of public joy of his father-in-law, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, when seeing his beloved children go off to America because some people were not as fortunate in the years immediately after Churban Europe. It would seem that Hashem has made sure that, although Adar and Purim will signal the arrival of joy and healing, it is not yet time to revel limitlessly. There will be a Friday Purim and we will go quietly into Shabbos.

But we probe even deeper. Rav Yitzchok Ziberstein (Borchi Nafshi, Bamidbar, page 378) cites an extraordinary thought from the Sefer Hafla’ah. He quotes the oft-recited posuk (Tehillim 30:4) “Hashem, You have raised up my soul from the lower world; Chiyisani – You have preserved me from my descent to the pit.” The Hafla’ah understands Dovid Hamelech to be teaching us that our chiyus – our very existence – comes not from being raised from the pit, but from the “descent into the pit itself.” It is the realization that Hashem is with us even at our most difficult moments – “I am with you in your pain” – that provides us with the most joy.

A number of the recent tributes to Rav Dovid Soloveitchik zt”l quoted from his talmid and family member, Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, that the rosh yeshiva’s home was defined by simcha. To strangers, this would be seem to be an odd description. One would have thought of the Brisker yiras Hashem, immersion in Torah or other middos. However, those who were privileged to drink in the special air of Rav Dovid’s home knew that the serenity and peace of mind flowed from a quiet but fervent simcha. Perhaps this year’s marbim b’simcha should focus more on our internal joy than the more common tumultuous scene to which we are most accustomed.

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein (Mitzvos B’simcha 1:290) relates an amazing story of how even a simple person was able to overcome nature by performing mitzvos with a quiet joy. Rav Elchonon Wasserman Hy”d was rosh yeshiva in the city of Baranovitch, which even in the best of times was so impoverished that the talmidim often had nothing to eat. A plain man named Reb Chaikel undertook to feed all the students on a daily basis. First he would make the rounds of bakeries and solicit bread for the starving talmidim. He did this with tremendous joy and good cheer, to the point that he actually sang his requests in a pleasant song. Then he would do the same at the butcher shops, where everyone responded generously because of the happy manner with which the plea was made.

After this system continued successfully for quite a while, the rosh yeshiva said to Reb Chaikel that he would like to reward him in some way. The smiling “caterer” was overwhelmed, protesting that watching the bochurim enjoying the food was reward enough. When Reb Elchonon insisted, Chaikel responded that since he had never had the privilege of learning Torah himself, he would ask – if possible – that the rosh yeshiva give one shiur a week in his home, which in any case served as the “dining room” for the yeshiva. Rav Elchonon happily assented and the shiur proceeded accordingly.

But the story only begins there. Soon the word got out that despite the hot sunny days at that time, the swarms of flies never entered the room where the where the bochurim ate. Even a certain Maskil named Dreitzin showed up to see the open daily miracle. Not satisfied to watch, he tried to drive the flies into the yeshiva’s “second home,” but it was to no avail. They wouldn’t go. Soon the word spread around Baranovitch that “Dreitzin has done teshuvah.” He turned his life around, declaring to anyone who would listen, “If a simple person such as Chaikel can override nature, I must believe that the Torah was indeed given on Mount Sinai in purity and holiness. I’m in.” When the great rosh yeshiva was asked about all this, all he would say was humbly, “I only hope that in the World of Truth they allow me to peak into Chaikel’s abode once in a while.”

Rav Zilberstein concludes by noting the incredible heights which a Jew can attain just by doing a mitzvah with great joy and love.

It is brought by several of the Arizal’s closest students that he declared that all the levels of learning and kedusha he had attained came from performing mitzvos with great joy.

Rav Yonasan Eibschutz (Yaaros Devash, Drush 11) also writes that all attainments ultimately arise from performing mitzvos with joy. Surely this is a type of joy which we can add to during Adar, even one still overshadowed by the losses which began this time of year and those who still require our prayers and concern.

Rav Yaakov Edlestein told a moving story from which he derived a practical lesson and hashkafah. One of his talmidim had become quite ill so he visited him at home. To his shock and dismay, the young man was so physically and emotionally shattered by his illness that he was yelling at his devoted mother for every minor issue. The rosh yeshiva attempted unsuccessfully to dissuade him from this behavior, but it was to no avail. His mother, however, gave the boy a kiss on his forehead after every outburst and insult.

Upon his return from the extraordinary bikur cholim, the rosh yeshiva commented that he learned something which he wanted to convey to his listeners. The mother acted in this way because “a mother remains a mother,” but Hashem acts the same with us. We act improperly and transgress many things. But for Hashem, this only awakens His love for us, knowing that we are ill and not our true selves. He concluded that it is when we are the most depressed and full of irritation and even anger that we should remember that Hashem is our loving Father Who watches over us regardless of our spiritual state. We might add that Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim when we were at our lowest, sunken in 49th level of defilement. Recognizing that fact alone should fill us with joy and gratitude for our Father in heaven for His providence and constant care.

It may well be that Adar also represents our recognition that Hashem saved us from Haman at a time when there heavenly complaints against us. We enjoyed Achashveirosh’s party and other offenses, but Hashem saved us despite ourselves. If we can enter Adar and Purim with this internal joy, perhaps this will truly “turn everything right side up,” giving us the geulah we all await bimeheirah beyomeinu.