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Between Joy and Frivolity

Friday, 22 February, 2013 - 3:00 pm

I was recently asked what is the big deal about joy on Purim? Yes, it’s a festive occasion and yes, Chabad knows how to throw a party and celebrate. But doesn’t everybody have opportunities like this? Can the joy of Purim really rival a competitive Boise State Broncos football victory? Was not the local celebration of the 2006 Fiesta Bowl greater than any Purim celebration? How is the Purim joy more special, earning it the title as the most joyous day of the year?

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This week’s parsha Tetzaveh is unique amongst all the portions of the Torah.  Once we are introduced to the leader of the Jewish people in Exodus, no parsha – apart from this one – is missing mention of Moshe. Our Sages teach us that this is due to Moshe’s plea with G-d that if He failed to forgive the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf, then, “Erase me from Your Book.” Although G-d relented and accepted the teshuvah (repentance) of the Jewish people, Moshe’s name is still missing from one portion of the Torah. This teaches us that the words of a tzaddik (though conditional) carry great weight and are always fulfilled in some form.

Taken simply, this teaching indicates a failure of sorts for Moshe – his name is erased. This might be the saddest parsha for Moshe.

The Chassidic masters, however, view this from an entirely novel perspective. They explain that this is no shortcoming for Moshe. Quite the contrary: his missing name underscores his dedication to the Jewish people. It serves as a reminder of his selfless sacrifice to his people. Taken from this vantage point, this might be the happiest parsha in the Torah for Moshe. It points to his essence, which is beyond a name; an essence and joy that is beyond description.

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What, precisely, does being joyful entail? A fine line exists between true happiness and frivolity or unruliness. Times of pure, unadulterated joy are often deep, serious, and difficult to express. Take, for instance, the birth of a child or celebrating the marriage of a child. These are profoundly charged times of transcendent joy that may compel one to dance and sing.  

On the other hand, those who simply spend a night in a wild obsession to seek delight, will often end up feeling empty and unfulfilled. This is not real cheerfulness. It may even be a waste of a night, at best.

As observers, is it possible to distinguish between these two types of joy, or shall I say between joy and frivolity? Both people are dancing. Both have smiles plastered from ear to ear. What’s the difference?

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A fundamental contrast between true, ecstatic joy and aimless rapture is how we treat others. One who is truly joyous wishes and endeavors to celebrate with as many people as possible. Such a person would want anyone and everyone – friends and family, even strangers – to participate in the merriment. This would, in fact, increase their elation.

One who seeks joy through external means, on the other hand, could equally enjoy watching another person be scorned or humiliated. This, of course, has no connection to true joy.

On Purim three of the four religious requirements are to send food gifts to friends, to give funds to the poor, and celebrate with a feast – hopefully with the company of others.  (The fourth mitzvah is to hear the reading of the Megillah (the Book of Esther) twice).  The hallmark of genuine joy is sharing with others, with family and close friends, and especially with those less fortunate than us.

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Moshe’s name might be missing, but the real joy that he enjoys is due to helping others. Real joy begets selflessness. Real selflessness begets joy.

This Purim, let’s be sure to celebrate. And true joy can only materialize if we include others in our celebration. L’Chaim!

Special thanks to my colleague, Rabbi Yossi Lew, Chabad of Peachtree City, GA for key points in this essay. Based, in large part, on the Rebbe’s talks.

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