Purim Reminds Us That Cultivating Joy Is An Important Spiritual Tool
“When Adar enters, joy increases.” So we read in the collection of Jewish wisdom known as the Talmud (B. Ta’anit 29a.) On the lunisolar Jewish calendar, Adar is the month we’re in now. The moon now waxing in the sky is the moon of Adar, and when it is full we will celebrate Purim, our festival of topsy-turviness, costumes, and merriment.
Purim is a good time. Costumes are fun, Purim spiels (plays, often comic or gently satirical) are fun, hearing the Megillah (scroll) of Esther and making noise to drown out the name of the wicked Haman is fun. But I don’t think the sages of the Talmud meant to refer only to “fun.” Fun can be joyful (and joy can be fun), but joy is something bigger and deeper than simply letting the good times roll.
What role does joy play in spiritual life? Some might claim that it’s a distraction from spiritual life, but that’s not the Jewish way. The psalms instruct us to serve God with joy (Psalm 100:2). The Talmud tells us that this is meant to be a joyful season of our year. And the sage known as the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, d. 1760) taught that we should work to discern what’s good and joyful within every experience life gives us.
Others might say that joy is the end result of spiritual life, but what then do we make of the fact that we all have moments in our lives that are not joyful? If we’re feeling sorrow or grief, does that mean that we’re “failing” at being spiritual? (Hardly: it means we’re succeeding at being authentic to where we are.)
“When Adar enters, joy increases” is a common translation of the Talmudic dictum with which I began, but it misses one subtlety in the original. The original is closer to, “When Adar enters, we increase joy.” There’s a presumed actor or set of actors there. Joy doesn’t increase on its own; someone has to do something in order for joy to increase.
Joy requires cultivation. That’s what I think our sages wanted to teach us. We can’t count on it just growing on its own. When we enter Adar, it’s our job to do something to increase our joy.
Notably, the sages of the Talmud don’t teach that when Adar enters us (or when we enter Adar), all of our reasons for stress, frustration, or sorrow will disappear. Adar doesn’t banish the things that are hard about life. If we are feeling stressed or stretched or grieved: by work, or relationships, or our national political discourse, or the narrow straits of personal circumstance and heart, Adar will not make those things better.
Instead, Adar invites “us” to make those things better by cultivating joy. Not by ignoring what’s hard or pretending it away or papering it over with a happy-clappy veneer — that’s called spiritual bypass, and it doesn’t serve us well. Adar invites us to cultivate the ability to feel joy even as we also hold what’s painful or hard in our lives.
Joy and sorrow are not opposites. They often come hand in hand. When we open to what we’re authentically feeling, both of these can arise — and they don’t cancel each other out. Paradoxically, letting ourselves feel our sorrows can become a way of opening our hearts to deeper joy.
Cultivating joy might feel like an indulgence, especially to those of us who have internalized our culture’s messages that self-care is selfish. Jewish tradition argues otherwise. The ability to cultivate joy is a spiritual tool we need to be capable of wielding: not only when life is good, but even (or especially) when we feel like life is not good at all.
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