The Unique Joy of Purim

March 4, 2020
purim mask and mishloach manot basket of fruit and face paint

This Purim message from Rabbi Sacks was originally shared on his social posts in March 2020, shortly before the UK went on lockdown for the first time, in response to Covid-19.

There’s something very strange about Purim. It is notably a festival of joy, “Y’mei mishtei v’simcha”. And not only is the day itself a joyous one, but uniquely, we begin that joy two weeks beforehand: “Misheh nichnas Adar marbim b’simcha” means that from the very beginning of Adar we begin to increase our joy.

And it is not only in the weeks leading up to Purim. This joy is present throughout the year. Every motzei Shabbat, during the Havdallah service, we remind ourselves of that line from the Megillah, “Layehudim haitah orah v’simcha,” meaning, “For Jews there was light and joy”.

Yet what exactly are we celebrating on Purim? The mere fact that we survived? That Haman’s decree of genocide was not enacted? That the evil decree: Lehashmid, v’leharog u’le’abed, to kill, destroy, and exterminate every single Jew, young and old, men and women, on a single day, was averted? That is not a cause for joy, it is cause for relief. That is not a cause for celebration, but really for post-traumatic stress disorder. So the question I am presenting here is, what is this unique joy of Purim?

I would like to propose the following answer. There are two kinds of joy. There’s expressive joy, the joy you experience and communicate because that’s how you feel. But there’s also therapeutic joy, the joy you will yourself to feel in order to protect yourself against negative emotions. And when we rejoice on Purim, on this festival which is actually the festival about antisemitism, we are saying something very important. “We will not be intimidated. We will not be traumatised. We will not be defined by our enemies. We will live with the threats and even laugh at them because what we can laugh at, we cannot be held captive by.” And that therefore is really what the joy of Purim is about. It’s about surviving, and beyond that, thriving, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

It’s a way of saying, “I will eat and I will drink and I will celebrate, and I will not let dark clouds enter my mind or my heart.”

Therefore, Purim holds a real message for our time, when we have seen antisemitism return. We must never let ourselves be intimidated. And the Jewish way to avoid this is to be marbim b’simcha, to increase our joy. Because the people that can know the full darkness of history and yet rejoice, is a people whose spirit no power on earth can ever break.

So let me wish you a Purim Sameach, a Purim full of joy.