Purim 2024: Can we really be happy?

On the eve of Purim, which begins tomorrow after Shabbat ends, we are confronted with a deeply challenging task: How do we combine a holiday that is ultimately about joy (and often celebrated with frivolity) with the deep pain that we are feeling amidst war, loss and tragedy? 

Indeed, we are living in a time when the scope of this pain is inescapable and impacts nearly every home and family. The Purim holiday will be marked this year with the knowledge that hundreds of families are without their loved ones — those who have experienced the loss of family members on the battlefield, and those whose children, siblings and parents remain imprisoned in Hamas captivity. Countless injured soldiers and victims of terror will spend the holiday in rehabilitation facilities, while tens of thousands of people remain unable to return to their homes located in or close to the battle zones.

Of course, we are forced to admit that this is far from the first time in our people’s history that we have been faced with the challenge of the clash of human emotion and tradition. Throughout the centuries, the Jewish people have endured so many national challenges during which holidays and customs inextricably linked with happiness have also endured.

Image by Annette from Pixabay

As always, we can find inspiration and practical guidance from the ancient teachings of our sages. They taught that there is a striking lesson that can be learned from two seemingly contradictory concepts in the annual Jewish lifecycle. 

The first is, “When we enter the month of Av, we limit the amount of happiness,” while the second, more familiar concept is, “When we enter the month of Adar, we increase the amount of happiness.” Through the use of very similar language for these two contrasting practices, we are taught that there is in fact a very direct and critical connection between these two ideas.

As we all know all too well, Jewish life is literally defined by the existence of both a great deal of happiness and a great deal of pain. It is therefore incumbent upon us as Jews to recognize that there are no absolutes in our traditions. Even when we are immersed in the sadness of the month of Av, we cannot forget that happiness still exists. Just as importantly, when we are living through the month of Adar it by no means indicates that we have forgotten, for even a moment, the sadness from our history — and certainly not from our current reality.

Israeli society is perhaps the ultimate example of this dynamic. When we are rejoicing on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, no one ever forgets that just hours earlier we were in collective national mourning in commemoration of Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror. The Holocaust also remains a constant point of painful reflection in our homes, and we will never forget the massive national loss that preceded the miracle of our modern independence. 

Yet at the same time, even in our darkest moments of tragic reflection and commemoration, we as a people don’t forget that joy will return.

The uniqueness — indeed the power — of our people is to be able to thrive by combining these competing emotions.

There are certainly many reasons to be sad at this current moment. While we have endured so many tragedies in the recent months, we can also rejoice in the courage and solidarity that is reflected every day within the IDF soldiers proudly fighting and defending our land. And despite that pain and loss, the majesty and wonder of a thriving and independent modern Jewish state remains a source of immeasurable pride and joy.

During the height of the Holocaust, at a time when his community was being destroyed and people were being killed all around him, one of the leading Hasidic rabbis of the time, the Piacezna Rebbe Klonymous Kalman Shapiro drew a parallel between the commemoration of Yom Kippur and Purim. He taught that just as people of all backgrounds, levels of observance and connection to tradition are obligated to repent on Yom Kippur, even those who are sad and in pain are obligated to feel happiness on Purim.

It would be deeply ignorant, if not offensive, to assume that Purim this year can be commemorated like any other year. As noted above, few Jewish homes are not experiencing pain, confusion and fear in ways that we might have hoped had been relegated to a distant past. 

Throughout our history, Jewish tradition demands of us to recognize that sadness and happiness not only can exist within the same reality, but they must. It is this balance, one that is central to our heritage and national ethos, that has become ever more important for us today.

Rabbi David Stav is the chief rabbi of Shoham, Israel, and the co-founder and chairman of Tzohar.