Joy in Response to the Moment in Time

In his famous book, Alvin Toffler defines the title Future Shock as: “The shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them […]

In his famous book, Alvin Toffler defines the title Future Shock as: “The shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.”  That line – written in 1970 about changes that technology – captures this moment in time. We are experiencing stress and disorientation in the face of rapidly changing political and societal developments. It isn’t just the change – it is the upsetting nature of the change that adds to the emotion. We are witnessing things we never imagined seeing!

I never imagined that I would have to talk to the students at this synagogue about anti-Semitism that they experience.  I never imagined the societal issues that are going on right now and the level of hate that is lashing out. And things are happening so rapidly.  It is indeed stressful and disorienting!

How do we respond to moments of stress, disorientation and fear?  Judaism has an interesting insight to times like this. The response is Purim – the holiday we celebrate tonight.

It does not get more stressful and disorienting than the situation the Jews experienced in Persia.  Imagine what it must have felt like to hear the king’s decree as influenced by the evil Haman – the command to “Destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews – young and old, women and children – on a single day.”  You are meant to feel the fear and vulnerability – an emotion we have experienced throughout our history.

And the response is counter-intuitive and extraordinary.  You defeat fear by joy.  You conquer terror by collective celebration – a festive meal, gifts to friends and tzedakah to the poor. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls it therapeutic joy. While the story is being told, we make rambunctious noise, which not only blots out the name of the evil Haman, but also makes a joke out of the whole episode. We wear costumes. We feast and drink. Rabbi Sacks writes: “Precisely because the threat was so serious, you refuse to be serious – and in that refusal you are doing something very serious indeed.” We declare we will not be intimidated, that we will embrace life.

According to the wisdom of Purim, the antidote to fear is joy.  Humor is the Jewish way of defeating hate. We refuse to succumb to bitterness, for what we can laugh at, cannot hold us captive.  This morning, I ask us to think about how to embrace humor, joy and laughter – especially in face the stress and disorientation of current reality. To a threatening and imperfect world – we say that we will not succumb to soul-destroying anger or to passivity – our spirit will not be broken. We will ridicule the wicked and celebrate the resourceful, courageous individuals – and in so doing rebuild our capacity to create change.

There are four mitzvot associated with Purim, each of which teaches us a different aspect of what it means to live with joy.  First, we are commanded to hear the Megillah.  Second, we are taught to have a seudah – a festive mealThird, mishloach manot – we are instructed to send gifts of goodies to our family and friends. Finally, we are commanded to distribute matanot l’evyonim – gifts to the poor. I would like you to do each of these tonight and tomorrow.  Let’s study each of them.

Hearing the Megillah:  You are supposed to hear every word. Why?  The story has lot of lessons that are so true! We have to learn and reflect about:

  • Anti-Semitism – Haman is the paradigmatic anti-Semite. We need to understand this festering reality – its origins, how it plays out, how to respond.
  • Power – The story teaches about the need to possess power in order to have influence, knowing how the system works and how to influence it.
  • Courage – “Maybe for this moment you have risen to this moment.” The courage of Esther and Mordechai inspires and motivates.
  • God not mentioned – for redemption comes from human actions. The book suggest a theology for our times.
  • Obedience/disobedience – We explore when to obey and when to disobey the laws of society.
  • Perspective – The book teaches that evil will not succeed. It will have its come-uppance.
  • Peoplehood – We learn to affirm Judaism in the face of challenges – Mordechai would not bow down to Haman. The people fasted in solidarity with Esther before she went to see the king.

All of this and more are in the book.  We have to hear it!

2nd commandment – feast – seudah. Traditionally, the centerpiece of the day is a feast.  Since on Purim we as a people were threatened – we bring the entire family together for the feast, and let the exaltation and relief of the day sink in.  Our connection to one another is one of the most important responses to stress and distress.

True joy comes in friendship – thus the mitzvah of mishloach manot – sending gifts.  We do this as a community here and many also do it as individuals.  There is something about making the gifts and then going around as a family to distribute them that is very special.  If you didn’t do it this year – sign up to be someone who delivers to fellow congregants next year.  The stories I have heard over the years of people connecting with one another through bringing gifts personally are beautiful.  We share joy with one another. Food is a way of saying, “I care about you.  I value you.” We remind ourselves that despite the danger in the world we are not alone.  We make sense of life’s randomness by honoring the loving relationships that sustain us. Fear often creates isolation.  We reject that response, instead responding with friendship and solidarity expressed through mishloach manot.

And finally the 4th mitzvah of the holiday – matanot la’evyonim – gifts to the poor.  Our collective memory of suffering sensitizes us to the needs of others, particularly the poor and vulnerable.   We oppose the forces of bigotry and hatred by giving tzedaka to whomever is in need, across all boundaries – as the halacha for Purim says – “to old and young, to Jews and non-Jews.”  Maimonides writes: “One who locks the door to his/her courtyard and eats and drinks with his/her spouse and family without giving anything….to the poor and the bitter of soul – that meal is not a rejoicing in the mitzvah, but a rejoicing of the belly alone.”  In fact, Maimonides teaches us to spend more on gifts to the poor than on our own feast, or even on mishloach manot!

During times of fear and disconnect, we need to remind ourselves that true joy comes through caring and connection to others. Stress, upset, disorienting emotions can narrow our world – we turn inward.  Purim and Judaism warn us not to do that. The silliness of Purim is matched by a renewed commitment to justice.  Our joy can never blind us to the plight of the needy and cries of the lonely. The halacha teaches you have to give to two people. Where will you give this year? I suggest this year to honor Leo, who shared with us the work of Dr. Paul Farmer, we donate to PIH – Partners in Health.  Dr. Farmer, who founded PIH is a modern day Esther.  He lives the line “Maybe you are in this position just for this purpose.” – feeling that his privileged education at Harvard Medical School,  and his growing influence prepared him and PIH to realize their true destiny to help the people of Haiti and their medical care.  The book Mountains beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder describes a man who lives Purim wisdom – situations like the Jews in Persia that seem hopeless, can be transformed through the efforts of determined individuals like Esther and Dr. Paul Farmer.

Purim, for all its escapism, zany costumes and crazy customs, brings us back to the real, imperfect world and its problems – but it brings us back to that world renewed by the energy of laughter and communal solidarity. And it brings us back not merely to witness the world with dismay – but to act and make a difference.

Let’s make Purim real this year – allowing the crazy silliness to help us laugh at life for a moment, hearing the messages with open hearts and curious minds, sharing the joy with loved ones, reaching our in generosity to  hose in need.  Chag Purim Sameach.  Happy Purim.