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Reflections on the Prayers for Purim

March 2011
I can’t get those faces of the Fogel family out of my mind. Udi and Ruth, the mother and father, little Yoav and Elad the sons, and Hadas the baby girl. Friday night, two knife-wielding terrorist monsters infiltrated the Samaria community of Itamar, just outside of Shechem, and slaughtered these five members of one family, in their beds, as they slept. Three other children survived because two were in a bedroom the murderers overlooked and the oldest was out with friends.
The Jewish month of Adar has always been, for me, a hodgepodge of emotions. Exactly eight years ago, our community of Karnei Shomron suffered its own tragedy when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the pizza parlor in our local shopping center, murdering three teenagers. And every year at this time there are memorial services for sweet Keren, Nehemiah and Rachel who will forever remain fifteen. And as we gather around those three graves, my stomach falls remembering those three funerals, one after the other. And now another neighborhood will never look at the month of Adar the same way again.
Smack in the middle of this month is the joyous, downright fun Festival of Purim. Purim is a carnival-like celebration of court intrigue, assassination plots, mistaken identities, villains, and heroines. The Book of Esther prescribes that we should make of this time “days of feasting and joy” (9:22), as instead of annihilating the Jews, Haman, the evil plotter is hung on the gallows and the Jewish people are saved. The holiday comes complete with costumes, noisemakers, feasting, snacks and goodies, so it’s hard not to get pulled into the merriment. And just in case that’s not enough, along with the inherent happiness of the holiday, is an actual order, written by our Sages, in the Jewish Code of Law, that when Adar arrives we should increase our joy.
What is this commandment to be happy? How can a person be forced or force himself to be happy? The Breslau Hassidim have put a lot of thought into the concept and have devoted their lives to inspiring the Jewish people to serve their Maker with joy. One of their Rabbi Nachman’s most basic precepts is a principle that has gained popularity throughout all sects of Judaism. “It is a major commandment to be happy, always.” Again, this commandment to rejoice. And here, the addition of “always”. Always?!?
There is a beautiful prayer attributed to the Breslau rabbi, Rabbi Nachman, which talks about the commandment of happiness. The prayer discusses, in wonderful simplicity, the desire of every Jew, to gather little bits of happiness, from all the goodness G-d has granted him, and use its strength to overpower and cancel all the darkness, worry, sadness and bitterness of our unfortunately many transgressions. The prayer goes on to ask G-d to allow us to dance enthusiastically in the worship of our Lord as we merit true joy.
Some people have a hard time connecting the frivolity of Purim with attaining true joy. We toast each other with glasses of wine, allowing our inhibitions to relax a bit, as we sing praises to G-d, dance around the table and share thoughts on the Bible. But we must be careful to not allow the mood to become frivolous. My daughters still remember Purim night at their High School. All Jewish holidays begin at night and the teenage girls would gather in the auditorium right before midnight, sitting on the floor in the dark room illuminated by candlelight. Their principal—their spiritual leader—managed to give them a lesson in true religious happiness, that they will never forget. Rabbi Yehuda Rosenberg would enter and the night would begin. Purim doesn’t have many of its own special prayers, so he himself composed one that he bounded in a booklet and presented to the girls.
“Dear G-d. I am standing here tonight and pour my heart out to You.
Please, in your compassion, allow me to feel Your presence and light up the eyes of all the people of Israel. Help me feel the happiness of the day, in my heart and in my soul. Give me the strength to sing and dance before you, through true devotion, with no distractions and no intrusion of impure thoughts. Allow me to feel solidarity with my fellow man, who are Your people. May I merit, tonight, to accept Your Torah with love, to feel inspired with the joy of keeping Your commandments And to be strengthened in the fear of G-d.”
Rabbi Rosenberg would read out this prayer in his deep, powerful voice, a hush falling over the crowd. The atmosphere was solemn but not sad. It was an atmosphere of holiness… purity. Slow songs were sung, verses from the Bible and tales of the Sages were read aloud and by the time the girls awoke the next morning, they were ready to serve G-d with genuine happiness. When my daughters Ahuva and Leora were in 11th and 12th grade, this beloved principal was diagnosed with cancer. That night of Purim, he didn’t come. Hundreds of girls sat in their circle in the darkened room, the flickering flames lighting their devastated faces. How to begin? How to muster the joy? And then he walked in, unsteadily, his face gray and lined, and began in a raspy, halting voice: “Dear G-d. I am standing here tonight and pour my heart out to you. Please, in your compassion, allow me to feel Your presence and light up the eyes of all the people of Israel. Help me feel the happiness of the day, in my heart and in my soul.”
That was the year he died. But he needed to come and give these young women the strength to continue. To show them that we can and must rejoice in G-d’s presence.
Sometimes there are things on a personal level that jar our happiness; sometimes there are larger things on a national level which mar our joy. Somehow, though, life will go on and we will sit around the Purim holiday table and sing out the popular verse from the Book of Esther: “The Jews had light and gladness, joy and honor” (8:16). In the days of Ahasuerus and Haman the Jews saw miracles wrought and were privileged to have “turned them from sorrow to joy and from mourning to holiday” (9:22). I know we are fortunate to be living here in Israel- in Samaria, the Biblical Heartland- privileged to be under the rule of our own people. But we are not safe yet. We are still surrounded by people, whole nations, who want to wipe us off the face of the earth, exactly as Haman had vowed to do: “to destroy, to kill and to annihilate, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women” (3:13). Have things changed? “Both young and old, little children and women”, just like the ruined, broken Fogel family from Itamar. Things will not change until G-d brings us the real redemption. And may it be His will—and soon—that just as in the days of old “that the enemies of the Jews who hoped to rule them, and it was reversed, so that the Jews ruled over their enemies instead” (Book of Esther 9:1).
Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities
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