Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 26, 2021 / 14 Adar 5781
Summary: Two features of Purim are costumes and joy. This week, I explore those themes and what we can learn from them.
Reading Time: Five minutes
Chinese New Year. Mardi Gras. Halloween. Carnival. Masquerade. So many cultures have holidays or celebrations in which costumes feature. Right off the bat, this reminds us that not only small children like to play dress up. There’s some sort of need that many of us have to shake things up and embrace a different persona.
What is fascinating is that even though costuming is cross-cultural, the reasons why people dress up can be pretty varied. I remember once reading how the Chinese wear red on their New Year’s to frighten off bad spirits. That’s the same origin of costumes on Halloween. The origins of mask-wearing at Mardi Gras apparently served a different function—it removed the distinctions of class by protecting identity. Suddenly, people of different social classes could revel together with no stigma. That’s rather beautiful and uplifting. Unfortunately, Mardi Gras costumes also serve a less noble purpose of permitting anonymous debauchery. Like the internet, anonymity often brings out the worst in people.
So it goes. The same outward behavior can be sparked by very different personal or cultural motivations. In Judaism, for example, the inner meaning of clothing is all about deception. Beged is the word for a garment. That same root, בגד, means to betray when used as a verb. Clothing often betrays who we are, presenting the persona we wish to the world.
There’s a tradition that all of Purim is a beged. On the surface of the story, the Jews will all be killed, and God is absent. Yet Esther shares a root with hester, meaning hidden. God, salvation, and the ultimate outcome of the Megilla are all initially hidden. Only when we look back can we see more clearly. Purim uses costumes to remind us to look past the surface of things.
There’s another very sensitive explanation given for Purim costumes. Since this is a holiday that features direct aid to the poor, the Jewish laws of charity (not only charity) aim to minimize embarrassment of those who are asking for support. That’s a far cry from those cultures who use costumes to permit otherwise unacceptable behavior.
Of course, the original reason for any given practice often disappears in use. Virtually no one dresses up on Halloween today to scare off dark spirits. That’s true for Purim as well. By this point, we dress up because it’s fun, or because we want to create a joyful environment for our kids. Simple joy.
Happiness is an important value in Judaism, and central to the holiday of Purim. The traditional phrase used to welcome in the Hebrew month of Adar, in which Purim falls, is mishenichnas Adar, marbin b’simchah. Once Adar begins, we should increase our happiness. Note that we have a role in this. We can take active steps to be happy, and I will return to this idea in a bit.
Before we do so, though, let’s get a better idea of happiness in our tradition, because it shows up in unexpected places. For example, the Talmud teaches us that God’s presence doesn’t appear to a prophet unless that prophet is feeling happy. One midrash, meanwhile, argues that the entire world is happier when there is a righteous government, and descends into despair under evil leadership.
Even though Hebrew lacks the rich vocabulary of English, and has far fewer synonyms, when it comes to happiness and joy, there are many choices. If we look at the Jewish wedding ceremony, that comes into sharp focus. If you have ever paid attention to the 7th wedding blessing in the Sheva brachot, you will have heard “asher bara sason v’simchah…gilah, rinah, ditzah v’chedvah…”
Sason is a sort of sudden happiness. Simchah is our catchall phrase for happiness. According to Rav Kook, gilah is a high-spirited outflow of joy. Rinah is a type of joyful song, and it also means something fresh. And so on. Happiness is to Judaism as snow is to the Eskimos. We distinguish many different versions of it.
As we celebrate and conclude our Purim festivities and move into Shabbat, here’s a final thought from Mordecai Yosef Leiner, a 19th century thinker and author of the book, Mei HaShiloach. He explains the difference between simcha, or joy, with that of oneg, or bliss. Here’s my paraphrase:
Simchah is the type of happiness that occurs when God gives you something you didn’t previously have. Oneg is when God reveals to you something you have had all along.
Every Shabbat, we have an opportunity for oneg. It’s the sort of joy that comes when we let go of all our doing and striving, and connect to eternal values like God and family. We can make that shift every week. Simchah, though, is that occasional experience, such as an annual holiday like Purim.
As we stand between Purim and Shabbat, we get a little bit of both. We are approaching the one year mark of when we closed our building. For many people, it has been a little harder this past year to find happiness, or joy, regardless of its variety. What these teachings remind me is that some happiness comes to us as a surprise. It is unearned, and we need to be open to it when it arrives unexpectedly.
Additionally, as with oneg, we already have within us the ability to connect and live with joy and bliss. We just have to remind ourselves of it as a practice. In this time of tumult—and the celebration of Purim—may we all do just that. After all, if we put on costumes to embrace another persona, then perhaps we can do the same with joy?
Because who couldn’t use a little more happiness these days.
Chag Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Shabbat Table Talk
- On Purim, most of us don’t embrace a new persona even if we wear a costume. When have you embraced a different persona? Why?
- If you are in a bad mood, what tools do you use to shake it off? Might those same tools be useful to reconnect with your personal oneg, the joy you carry within?
- Which Jewish holiday is most joy-filled for you? What elements make it happy for you?
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