Sit up. Sit quietly. Sit still. Are these phrases you heard as a child growing up in church or another house of worship? I certainly did when my parents took me to synagogue. For the last quarter of the 20th century, American religion was mostly a religion of decorum.
It mattered little what faith was expressed from the pulpit, the pews were a place to sit, to listen, and to follow along. If you were lucky, the ritual could be grounding and the sermon intellectually or morally stimulating. I do not remember and research records little joy in our organized religious life.
I was rather shocked when I encountered, during my rabbinical training, the idea of joy as an expression of faith in the Jewish tradition. It is not that I could not connect joy and Jewish; it is that I never thought of joy as a religious statement. It turns out that joy is not only a way to be Jewish; it is a Jewishly commanded service to God. “Serve God in joy” (Psalm 100:2).
The Jewish holiday of Purim, commemorating the story of Queen Esther, comes in the Hebrew month of Adar. The saying goes, “the one who enters Adar, increases joy.” The festivities surrounding the retelling of Esther’s heroism in rescuing the Jewish people from Haman’s plot are full of frivolity: children (and adults) wear costumes, drinking alcohol is encouraged, neighbors give gifts to each other, and carnivals bring to life the “game of chance” that life in Esther’s Persia represented.
I always enjoyed Purim. It was, and is, a chance to turn things upside-down, especially all that decorum. The very melodies of standard prayer services are adapted to include Broadway and pop music melodies. People are encouraged to be up and about in the aisles rather than in seats. Purim is the one day where one experiences by design the opposite of the religious life I grew up in.
Until this year. This year, the story of Esther needed to save the Jews from an anti-Semitic Haman feels too real. What was literature or literary history for me before, now has become a vivid reminder that Esther had to hide her Jewish identity. The 135-plus bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers and Jewish day schools since January changed the way I hear the story.
I have had to evacuate our school four times as of this writing. I have done so without fear, without feeling my security has been compromised. I experience these threats as harassment; and, as a survivor of each incident, I am faced with knowing that someone hates Jews enough to try to violate our human dignity. That knowing puts me through an emotional rollercoaster in which joy factors very little.
This year, Purim will resonate differently for me, bitterly; and it will also be an occasion for great joy. I will not hold my head up high, chin up; no. This year, I will celebrate joyously because that joy is precisely what I need and what our world needs. Joy is not the opposite of hate; joy is the antidote to hate.
This year, I will throw off decorum, and I will find human flourishing in the joy of dancing, singing, and connecting to Jewish survival throughout the ages. Joy is service to our highest ideals. I refuse to go low, to cower. Instead, I will go high, not morally high trying to be better than them, but spiritually high to be the best of me. I hope you will join me.
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