Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Purim in the Shadow of Sadness

MiShenichnas Adar Marbim Besimcha – when the Hebrew month of Adar begins, our joy is increased. The new month signals the upcoming festival of Purim – when by working behind the scenes God saved the Jews from complete destruction, a reason for celebration if ever there was one.

Yet what happens when Adar comes and happiness does not increase?

Last Thursday evening, as Jews welcomed in this month of joy, a gunmen walked into a Yeshiva and sprayed between 400-500 bullets, murdering 8 young men who were pouring over holy Torah texts. A week on, I still can't bring myself to look at pictures of the carnage that was left in the study hall.

And over and above the shock, anger and sadness at the attack, I felt an overriding sense of nascent fear – that perhaps this signaled the start of something more, a return to darker days; where catching or missing that morning bus or deciding on pizza rather than a movie could make the difference between life and death; where every attack sent a host of phone calls and text messages to friends and loved ones; where Israelis stopped feeling safe doing the most normal of things. Where hope for a better future all but disappeared.

The week after Purim we read of the tragic death of two of the High Priest's sons, Nadav and Avihu. Their death occurred on one of the happiest days of Aaron's life, the dedication of the tabernacle. And as Moshe tries to comfort his brother with theological justifications ("This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to be I show myself holy and gain glory before all the people") Aaron doesn’t cry out in pain or anger, he doesn’t try and rationalize or apportion blame. His response is simply silence.

And perhaps Aaron - known as the 'lover and pursuer of peace' - teaches us that sometimes the appropriate responses to tragedies are not discussions over how there will never be peace with the Arabs, or how it was an inevitable response to Israeli actions in Gaza, or why the gunman's home town of Jebal Mukaber is considered part of the eternal undivided capital of Israel.

Sometimes, the only response is silence…

So as Israelis prepare to celebrate a festival of joy against a background of terror in Jerusalem, hopelessness in Sderot, rockets on Ashkelon, the failures of Lebanon and casualties in Gaza, its difficult to feel the happiness increasing. Yet in many ways this is perhaps the archetypal Israeli experience, of sadness being mixed with joy, of delight colored by poignancy…because even during our darkest days Jews continued to believe in the potential for a better (Messianic) world; even our national anthem emphasizes that 'Od Lo Avda Tikvateinu' – our hope was not lost.

So let's hope we can be strengthened in these difficult days and pray that one day we'll not only love and pursue peace but also achieve it…and that just like Bayamim Hahem, in those days, there is some sort of hand working behind the scenes to save the day.