Jewish Holidays Remember All Milestones By Rabbi Ari Ballaban
Judaism teaches that certain times and seasons carry special, sacred significance. Of course, this is a familiar idea in our daily lives: Our weekly celebration of Shabbat is meant to reenact God’s mythic, post-Creation rest. However, we also regularly engage in such temporal symbolism in a larger sense. Most of our holidays, for instance, are meant to mark the specific times in years past when important events occurred for our people. In experiencing the Jewish calendar, we are meant to reconnect with an ancient heritage and to re-experience the foundational moments of our history.
The occasions we mark in Judaism are as diverse as they are numerous. They run the full emotional gamut, from the most extreme euphoria to the deepest despair. In the latter category, for instance, is Tisha b’Av (the Ninth of Av) which commemorates essentially every calamity we as Jews have suffered. According to Jewish lore, this was the day when:
- both of the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed;
- near when the First Crusade began;
- around the time the Jews were expelled from England in the 13th century, France in the 14th century, and Spain in the 15th century;
- and even when Heinrich Himmler’s “Final Solution,” the German plan to exterminate the world’s Jews, was approved.
And yet, the Jewish calendar is far from being only about recalling doom and gloom. At the start of this month (beginning the night of the 28th of February, and extending into the day of March 1st), we observe a celebration that falls squarely into the euphoric holiday camp. For millennia, Purim has been held up as the most positive, inspiring example of Jewish perseverance. We learn from the Jewish tradition that just as much as we think of Tisha b’Av as the most traumatic day of the Jewish calendar, we are meant to think of the entire month of Adar as joyous and auspicious.
The teachings of the first Rabbis, recorded in the Mishnah, suggest that mi-she-nichnas av, m’ma-atin b’simchah; or: “Once Av begins, we diminish celebration.” Several centuries later, Rabbi Yerhudah (son of Rabbi Samuel bar Sheilat) coined the more famous corollary to this phrase: Mi-she-nichnas adar, marbin b’simchah; or: “Once Adar begins, we multiply celebration.”
You might be wondering: Is this teaching meant to be descriptive or prescriptive? In other words, are we urged to celebrate extra during the month of Purim, or is it just our fate to be extra happy at this special time? Judaism’s answer to this question (from the Talmud) is, perhaps unsurprisingly, both. The Talmud teaches that, during Adar, a person has greater luck than any other time of the year, but it also teaches that, during Adar—as a consequence of this cosmic reality—a person should be more open to taking chances.
I’m not usually superstitious; however, I think the idea this teaching conveys can be very productive as we reflect on the story of Purim and the past triumphs of our people. This year, for the entirety of Adar (until March 16th), I hope that we can think about the ways that we, as a nation and as individuals, have done well and succeeded in the past. But, in the dual spirit of Purim and Adar, I hope that we can also allow ourselves to take the chances necessary to create good in the future. Adar prompts us to imagine that even the seemingly-unattainable may be in our reach. It encourages us to believe something empowering: That there is no time like the present!