February 11, 2021 | Erev Rosh Chodesh Adar
The Hebrew month of Adar, by tradition, “increases joy.” Those who are used to Jewish tradition may take this idea for granted. But underlying it are presumptions that are worth thinking about, not least because they run so counter to contemporary western presumptions.
First amongst these is the Jewish idea that we can choose to determine how we feel. In Western life: don’t we just go with the flow? Isn’t it somehow unhealthy to squelch how I’m feeling? In this particular year – of death and sickness and disruption – aren’t we entitled not merely to feel (choose your words) tired / depressed / exhausted / unsettled / lonely / scared / confused or, indeed, just plain slogging-along-and-wondering-if-things-will-ever-get-better…?
A contemporary Jewish response would be to say, yes, of course, we should feel what we feel. And in these times especially, it may be important to share how we feel with loved ones, indeed to let it out a little; not be trapped or further bowed down by our feelings.
That’s part of it. But the other part is a different kind of Jewish response, sometimes rooted in chasidic tradition. You don’t wait to feel joyous to dance; you get up and dance, and it helps you feel joyous. “Feelings,” in this view, are a decision as well as a given; a choice, a leaning-in, an orientation, a freely-chosen aspiration.
That’s what mi she’nichnas adar marbin b’simchah means – (literally) “that joy increases when Adar begins,” because we choose to open ourselves into the direction of joy.
This is a microcosm of the gifts of the Jewish calendar writ large. And it’s in contradistinction to the Western calendar, which to me seems rather monochrome by contrast. July 4th is fireworks. Thanksgiving is turkey and being overstuffed and football. And something to do with shopping. Christmas is a deracinated combination of Christianity and family and a tree and gifts. Yom Ha’atsma’ut in Israel, by the way, isn’t much better – plastic hammers and mangal (the strange Israeli word for barbecue; don’t ask.)
The Jewish year, by contrast, invites us to make real choices in our life, rooted in the gifts of the calendar, in rich and nuanced ways. Shabbat isn’t just cessation from x, y, and z. It’s what an artist sees in the fullness of negative space – in this case celebration, song, good food, wine, friends, and family. (And this is why covid-shabbat, almost however celebrated, is a pale, pale echo of what shabbat truly is.)
Pesach – and the lead-up to Pesach – is an invitation to examine and to remove superfluity, stuff that clogs up our lives and prevents us being free. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind us to reflect, to look back and look forwards, to hear our mortality, to change course. Tisha B’Av calls us to sadness – whether we’re “feeling sad” or not – about the many destructions which have befallen us.
So first: welcome to the month of Adar, which begins this shabbat. Let’s note the longer days, the distribution of the vaccine, the serious response of our new government to the climate crisis, and thus a sense that we can indeed choose to be (at least a little more) joyous.
And second – this is a prelude to the shmita year, which starts on September 6th. We had an extraordinarily rich Hazon staff meeting yesterday. We started with just a few lines from the Torah about shmita. We read Rashi’s 11th century commentary, which introduced the idea that certain produce grown in the shmita year is “hefker” – ownerless. And then we asked: what does that concept teach us about the nature of Jewishness, and how might it inflect our world today? In the ensuing conversation we talked about giving food to people; the borders of our homes; the issue of debt, students loans, and reparations. We went as big as the sense that the values of shmita are a clear critique of contemporary capitalism, and as small as the question of how much produce we buy each week, and what it would be like not to stock our pantries for a year.
More on this next week – and over the coming weeks and months. (If you’re interested, here’s the beta for our Shmita Prizes – more on them in the next two weeks.)
For now: may we have the strength, the wisdom, the support, the insight… to figure out how to choose joy.
Shabbat shalom, chodesh tov,