Rosh Chodesh: I Think I’m Sad That You’re Happy

Happy Adar everyone!  Today and tomorrow are the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar.  Happy, happy, joy, joy, is what the Talmud tells us occurs in the month of Adar.  We are to find our happy and express our joy.  It is the only month where Judaism tells us to feel a certain way all month long.  

Adar is the astrological sign of the Jewish people, say the Sages.  It is the sign of ‘Dagim’ (fish, Pisces), and covenant promises that we will be as abundant and bountiful as fish that swarm and thrive in the oceans.  Some Jews wear beautiful artistic renderings of fish jewelry as a sign of good luck — this is why.  So we are to wear a smile and find joy all through Adar…but what about all the bad things that happened in Adar?

In ancient Persia, Adar is the month that was chosen by Haman to slaughter each and every Jew.  The fact that it ends well doesn’t change the fact that the Jews of that time were threatened by a government intent on their extinction.  Horrific plans were made, edicts were sent out, armies were ready, and Jewish parents chilled at the possibility that there might not be a tomorrow for their children.  Am I to forget their terror as I celebrate the outcome?

Following Adar is the month of Nisan, the month of Passover.  That means that during Adar, the Jews in Egypt were in the midst of the plagues, facing an unknown future, with death and the screams of suffering all around them.  Are their moments of terror erased?

Moses, our greatest leader, and our greatest advocate, dies on the seventh day of Adar. Is my joy meant to blind me to this loss, the leader who gave us everything?   Like any month of any year, Adar can be filled with moments of challenge and anguish that could anchor us in darkness…if we so choose.

I remember years ago, I was teaching grade one as a student teacher, and I was in the classroom with the kids on the last day of school.  They were excited that school was ending, and summer was beginning, but they were sad that school was ending, and summer was beginning.  One little girl arrived in the morning already crying.  I tried to comfort her and tell her that everything is ok because summer will be fun, and in a few short months everyone will be back again.  She just looked at me and cried.  I listed some fun things that can happen only in the summer.  She cried some more.  I tried to get her to join the class activities, but nothing I said or did could slow her tears.  I turned to the host teacher and asked for some advice.  The teacher told me that today is that girl’s birthday and her mother explained to the teacher that the child is overwhelmed and doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad.  The teacher was giving her room to work it through.  The hope was that she would eventually remember that at the end of the day her mother was bringing birthday cupcakes for everyone.  

That day and the dilemma it presented has stayed with me since then.  How does a six year old navigate the day when she is equally happy and equally sad?  How do any of us authentically honour the conflicting emotions within us?  To tell her to only be happy, because today is her birthday, is to undervalue that there is legitimate sadness to saying goodbye to her friends.  Of course, conversely, to focus only on the end of the year is to forget that her birthday makes the day joyous.  We’re the teachers, how do we teach that one?

There’s a powerful tradition practiced by a small group of Jews that speaks exactly to this point.  The tradition is mostly unknown to the majority of the Jewish people because it is practiced by a group of people who prefer to remain anonymous, the Chevrah Kadishah.  This is the group of Jews who prepare, care for, and bury someone who has passed away.  On the seventh day of Adar, the day Moses died, they fast and then they feast. 

The fasting is to remember that this is the day when Moses died, alone on a mountain, with only God at his side.   Ultimately, every person faces death alone with only God at their side, but we always try our utmost to make sure that they are tended to and buried with Judaism all around them.  We do this without ever expecting that they thank anyone because they have already passed away so clearly there is no expression of gratitude forthcoming.  We consider it to be the greatest act of chesed that we could ever do for each other.  Moses taught us that.  

And yet, when Moses died, there was no one to tend to him, no one to bury him.  The man who taught us the meaning of chesed, acts of human kindness that expect no gratitude in return, this man had no one to extend chesed to him when he needed it.  The Chevrah Kadishah spends that day in sadness and regret.  They fast.

But, as the day is ending, the fast is broken with a great feast and celebration.  That is because the seventh of Adar is also the day Moses was born.

Two events representing the two extremes of life occurred on the same day.  Moses’ birth, the celebration of life, should have been celebrated first, since it occurred first.  Moses’ death, the threshold away from life, should be mourned afterwards.  In other words, chronologically, the Chevrah Kadishah should celebrate first, and then fast.  But Judaism is not about historic chronology, it is about meaningfulness.  Two events representing two polar extremes happening on the same day.  Now the choice is ours.

The Sages aren’t telling us that bad things didn’t happen in Adar because we know they did.  They are telling us that we need to learn how sadness must resolve into joy, how suffering must resolve into growth, how threat must resolve into opportunity.  

Adar is here, and finding our joyous expressions must be sincere.  The sadness and challenges didn’t disappear, life is not a fairy tale.  The joy of Adar is not a description of its every moment, it’s a description of our arrival.  That little girl was correct to cry at the end of grade one, and her mother was brilliant to make sure the day would end with a cupcake.

This week’s Parsha is Mishpatim. If you would like to read Rachael’s reflections on this parsha, please read last year’s post: Something’s Not Kosher In Denmark.

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