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The Happiness Of Adar

The Happiness Of Adar

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 4:58 p.m.
Torah Reading: Exodus 25:1-27:19
Haftarah: I Kings 5:26-6:13
Sabbath Ends: 6 p.m.

I love Jewish tradition. I also find it puzzling. It is because I puzzle through it, however, that I love it.

Take Jewish wisdom for the month of Adar that commences this very week. “When Adar begins,” the Rabbis say, “We increase happiness.” Or, as the popular version goes, “It’s Adar; be happy!” — especially when, as now, a Jewish leap year provides not one but two Adars. We can be happy for two straight months, apparently.

That’s good news for Americans, who consider happiness their highest goal. This month alone, one publisher, Jewish Lights, is advertising no fewer than four different books on finding happiness. Bookstores carry hundreds of titles more. So be happy!

But here’s the puzzle. Happiness cannot be summoned on demand. If I am miserable on Shevat 29, the day before, can I automatically be happy on Adar 1, the day after? The morass of life does not miraculously disappear just because the calendar turns over a new leaf on the wall. And what about people whom happiness eludes because mood disorders chemically block the “happy channels” of their brain?

How, then, can tradition command happiness?

Jewish wisdom on happiness contains an oft-cited maxim from Pirkei Avot: “Who are rich? They who are happy with their lot” (hasamei’ach b’chelko). So maybe Adar is the time to be happy with our lot. But what if our lot is of the sort that should satisfy no one? The Rabbis could hardly have been advising the wretchedly poor to make the best of their circumstances. Persecuted people should never acquiesce to servitude. Sufferers from depression cannot be expected to rejoice in their chemical inability to find rejoicing.

For many of us, however, the advice to be happy with our lot is sound. Our culture constantly pressures us to get ahead, no matter how far ahead we already are. But at a cost! Endlessly striving to be more, make more, do more, and amount to more, can strip us of the happiness we have in the vain hope of obtaining the happiness we will never get. So yes, as long as our lot is reasonably free of physical and psychic pain, we indeed are rich if we are “happy with our lot”

But when the Rabbis advised being happy with our lot, they did not mean only, or even primarily, the lot we receive in our allotted years of life on earth. Their most daring act of faith was to say that there is more to life than that. The promise of “more” takes many forms, chief among them, the guarantee that we can receive a chelek in a world to come. Chelek here is usually translated “share” — we get a share in the world to come. But it is the same word as chelko, “a person’s lot,” the “lot,” I am convinced, that the Rabbis really designated as what should make us happy. Adar is the time to consider the possibility of a lot “in the world to come.”

It is not fashionable these days to take seriously the possibility of life beyond death. But there are days when that promise keeps me going. I cannot comprehend it any more than goldfish can comprehend life outside water. But I believe in it, and I pray that when death comes, I will take my leave of earthly life without regret, knowing that this “more” is not mere rhetoric from a prior age before science “got it right.” The “more” of which I speak does not demand my body, or even my brain, which, being bodily itself, will end when the rest of me does. Thinking of it as “more of me” may even be misleading. It may be better to say that in some meaningful way, we will remain part of the “more” that already constitutes the universe into which we are born and into which we die.

Adar returns me to basics: the reason I am here is not to become bigger, better, and richer, but to create a richer “moreness” in the “more” of which I am already a part. Whatever my current state of being, I am capable of adding to the world’s stock of love, compassion, and charity; honor, humor, and wholeness: the things that really matter, when all is said and done.

Adar is the time to reflect on the world’s moreness and to commit ourselves to adding to it. Now is the time to ponder the possibility of a world to come, knowing that whatever that is, the share I can have in it should make me very happy indeed!

It’s Adar. Be Happy!

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College in New York, is an expert in the field of Jewish ritual and spirituality. He is the editor of “My People’s Prayerbook: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” and “The Way Into Jewish Prayer” (Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vt.).

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