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Be Happy

We’re commanded to be happy on Purim, and it turns out the acts required for proper observance—from donning costumes to celebrating with others—provide useful tricks for brightening moods year round

Ilana Kurshan
March 17, 2011
Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
Purim in Jerusalem.Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
Purim in Jerusalem.Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

A lot has been recently written about happiness. Books like Stumbling on Happiness, The Politics of Happiness, and the best-selling The Happiness Project posit that happiness is something that can be attained, albeit with a bit of hard work, if we better understand our own mental processes. It seems that happiness is hip these days, as I could not help noticing when I began preparing for Purim.

“When the month of Adar enters, we increase in happiness,” the Talmud teaches. This slogan appears across Jerusalem, where I live, at this time of year, as many of the city’s storefronts are converted into costume bazaars (pirates, cowboys, fairies, and butterflies—the standard fare) and the stands in the shuk that sold dried fruit for Tu b’shvat now feature mini candy bars and Gummy Everything for inclusion in mishloach manot packages, the baskets of food that are traditionally exchanged on Purim. Walk into any of these shops and you hear the same recording of happy voices singing “Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’simchah,” (Once Adar begins, we increase in happiness) like the ubiquitous Jingle Bells of American Decembers. Happiness, you might conclude, is about plastic sunglasses and glitter and colorful wigs.

You wouldn’t be entirely wrong: Happiness is indeed about costumes and mishloach manot. Because if Purim is about being happy, then the mitzvot we are obliged to perform on the holiday help teach us how we might stumble upon happiness.

For one, happiness is about community. All the deeds we are commanded to perform on Purim involve other people; they must be done in a communal context. To give gifts to the poor you must put yourself in a situation where you have contact with poor people; to send mishloach manot you must have friends to whom you can send them; to enjoy the festive Seudah, the holiday meal, there must be others with whom to share it; and even the megillah reading is supposed to be read publicly, in synagogue. Sitting alone at home and reading books about happiness is not going to make you happy. But going to shul to hear the megillah just might. The Jewish conception of happiness, as we learn from the mitzvot of Purim, is about surrounding yourself with other people, and involving yourself in their lives.

This is a lesson I was reminded of not long after the start of Adar, when I returned to daf yomi, my daily morning Talmud class, after a two-month hiatus. My tendency is to wake up feeling sad and overwhelmed. I am not a depressed person, but the start of the day always seems to bring with it an awareness of all the tasks that lie ahead, and I wake with the weight of the world on my shoulders. As the day unfolds and I begin to get to work, I tend to get progressively happier, and sometimes in the evenings I am positively giddy—until the next day dawns and the demons are back. But I’ve noticed that returning to daf yomi has had the magical effect of jump-starting my happiness. I love waking up knowing that I have a place to go, and that if I don’t hop out of bed at that very moment, I won’t make it in time. I love arriving at the class and seeing a host of familiar faces who take note of my presence and will wonder if I don’t show up one day. In short, I like starting my day as part of a community. Perhaps this is why we are supposed to pray with a minyan every morning—to remind ourselves, first thing, that we are part of something larger than ourselves. And perhaps this is why all the major mitzvot of Purim, the happiness holiday, must be performed in the presence of others.

The customs of Purim, too, offer lessons in being happy. On Purim we dress in costume so that we do not look or feel like ourselves. Sometimes, part of being happy is forgetting who we are or tricking ourselves into thinking that we can be somebody or something else. This custom reflects the awareness that it is difficult to make ourselves happy unless we can, at least in part, forget ourselves. This is surely what lies behind the custom of drinking alcohol—it is a desire to shed some of our inhibitions and our painful self-awareness. Purim reminds us that happiness is just sadness dressed in borrowed robes. We wear painted clown masks over our furrowed brows and can’t help smiling as we see our friends in their own silly disguises. Perhaps this is why Keats invokes the image of the veil to describe the close kinship between happiness and melancholy: “Ay, in the very temple of Delight/ Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” Delight is just veiled melancholy, and Purim is the day we put on the veil and peer out at the world through it.

Purim, though, is not the only occasion for happiness in Judaism. The Torah also speaks of happiness in the context of the festival of Sukkot, where we are told V’samachta b’chagecha v’hayita ach sameach. And you shall be happy on your festivals, and you shall be surely happy (Deuteronomy 16:14-15). I read the words “surely happy” as suggesting that we have to be happy even in spite of ourselves. We must be happy on demand, like the bright yellow “Don’t worry be happy” bumper stickers. But as we know, emotions cannot be mandated—we cannot force ourselves to feel a certain way. And so it seems that in the Torah, happiness is not a feeling but rather a way of acting. “V’hayita ach sameach”—you must surely act happy! Because to act happy is to be happy, in spite of, ach, how you might otherwise feel.

I have tried, over the years, to internalize this Jewish concept of happiness. No matter how sad I am feeling, I always dance up a storm on Simchat Torah. I am convinced that if I circle just a bit faster, I’ll be so dizzy that I’ll manage to lose my bearings entirely. On Purim, too, I force myself to come up with ridiculously obscure costumes to delight my fellow Talmud-learning friends, even if the last thing I want to do on that day is dress up (or even get dressed at all). I regularly smile and act cheerful and try to greet everyone I meet with a sunny disposition, regardless of how I am feeling inside. It is, to some extent, an act, but I don’t think it’s disingenuous. I am aware that I stand the best chance for being happy if I act like a happy person.

On Purim we are commanded to take this to an extreme. We act a certain way and, in so doing, we transform our emotional state. This process of acting as a means to feeling reminds me of the Talmudic midrash about how God held Mount Sinai over the heads of the Israelites like a bucket until they accepted Torah.

“And they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17). In the Tractate Shabbat, Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa says: This teaches that God forced the mountain over them like a bucket, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, very well; and if not, this mountain will be your grave. … Rava said: Even so, they upheld accepted it upon themselves in the days of Achashverosh. That is, when the Jews were standing at the foot of Mount Sinai poised to receive the Torah, God threatened them by holding the mountain over their heads, so that the Jews had no choice but to receive it. It was only on Purim that they accepted Torah out of their own free will.

Torah, like happiness, was not easy to take on. The Jews accepted happiness under coercion, much as we “force” ourselves, through our observance of the mitzvot of Purim, to act happy. But the end result was that by Purim, the Jews found themselves accepting Torah out of their own volition. So too may we find ourselves, on Purim, surprised by joy—dancing to a rhythm we didn’t know we had, joking with people we wouldn’t have presumed to claim as friends. For those whose natural tendency is to go about the world somber and heavy with the weight of the world, Purim looms overhead like a very scary mountain indeed. For this one day alone, let us wear that mountain on our heads like a clown hat, casting our lots with those who are off making merry.

Ilana Kurshan is the author of If All the Seas Were Ink.