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Find Some Reason to Believe: Purim 2019

There can be something incredibly unromantic about Jewish holidays.

Far from inviting our feelings to flow naturally from the interior of our souls, the holidays can mandate how we are to feel. Yom Kippor comes and tells us to be introspective; Shabbat comes and tells us to rest, and of course, Purim - which is less than a month away - comes and tells us to be joyful.

One of the most extraordinary interpretations of this dynamic comes from Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, known, as most Jewish thinkers are, by the name of his most well known book, Aish Kodesh, or Holy Fire.

The Aish Kodesh writes that just as the work of repentance and fasting on Yom Kippor are mandated whether or not one feels like fasting, so too, on Purim, even if a person “feels lonely and brokenhearted, with mind and spirit crushed, she must inject at least a spark of joy into her heart” (עכ’’פ איזה ניצוץ של שמחה להכניס אל לבו).

What is remarkable about this teaching from the Aish Kodesh is not simply what he is saying, but the context in which he is saying it.

The Aish Kodesh was the de facto spiritual leader of the Warsaw Ghetto and he gave this teaching at Purim in 1940. Most of his community and family had already been murdered as he himself would be before too long.

The Aish Kodesh knew well that the people to whom he was talking were indeed “lonely and brokenhearted, with mind and spirit crushed.” Precisely in this setting of pain and suffering, he was offering a spiritual truth that is true in all circumstances - our emotional life is significantly influenced by external circumstances, but it is determined by internal circumstances. Or, as my teacher R. Sheila Weinberg put it at a dark period in my life, “Make space for the darkness, but decide to be grateful or the darkness will swallow you alive.”

Darkness surrounds us - in our hearts, in our community and in our world. In the words of the the Talmudic Sage Abba Binyamin, “If the eye had the power to see, no human being could stand for fear.” Sometimes those demons are obscured from us, sometimes they are painfully evident, as I have to imagine they were in the Warsaw Ghetto.

When the darkness seems overwhelming, we need to access a force - possibly from a holiday, possibly from the Holy One in the form of a friend, possibly from the depths of our own souls to inject at least a “spark of joy into our hearts.” Or, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, “Still at the end of every hard day we have to find some reason to believe.”  

Only a pollyanna fool would pretend this is easy work, that a positive attitude can overcome all external forces. It often takes tremendous effort to locate even a spark of joy, much less a fire, and often we cannot do it on our own.

So in now, if the chill of late winter is also a chill in your soul, know that Purim is coming and with it, some help in finding a spark of joy that might help us push back against the darkness.

When the days seem dark and cold, may we all find some holy fire to warm us.

[NB: If you are interested in learning more about the extraordinary life of the Aish Kodesh, you might want to see this article by Shaul Magid, The Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto]

Tue, August 20 2019 19 Av 5779