In one of his stand-up performances, British comedian Ashley Blaker speaks of those Jews who go to synagogue just twice a year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and he then says: “If you only want to go to shul twice a year, spread it out a bit! Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are eight days apart! Also, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are really long and difficult services. And that’s why if I was only going to go to shul twice a year – I’d go on Purim and Simchat Torah. I’d go for the fun ones!”.
Admittedly, there is some tongue-and-cheek in this observation. But what is undoubtedly true is that a less-frequent-shulgoer would experience a very different vibe were they to attend shul on Purim than, say, Rosh Hashanah, and that the Purim service has great potential in terms of conveying the powerful message of joy that we celebrate on Purim.
I mention this because a major subject of today’s daf (Megillah 5a-b) explores the meaning of the statement of Rabbi Elazar, in the name of Rabbi Chanina, about Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi – otherwise known as Rebbi, that: רבי נטע נטיעה בפורים – ‘Rebbi planted a shoot on Purim’.
Significantly, there are a variety of ways of understanding this statement and, in particular, those that follow relating the 17th of Tammuz and 9th of Av, and for this I would suggest that readers take a look at Dov Zakheim’s recently published, ‘The Prince and the Emperors: The Life and Times of Rabbi Judah the Prince’ (pp. 261-271).
However, I would like to explore this teaching in light of the later statement in today’s daf that רבי נטיעה של שמחה נטע, which, though explained literally means: ‘Rebbi planted a shoot for the purpose of bringing joy [on Purim]’, can also be understood to mean ‘Rebbi planted a shoot of joy [on Purim]’, and the reason for doing so is because, as I mentioned above, I believe that the Purim service has great potential in terms of conveying the powerful message of joy that we celebrate on Purim.
Yet you will note that I have used the word ‘potential’. True, almost every shul service on Purim is lighthearted. There is the Megillah, the noisemakers, and the many people who come to shul wearing fancy dress. At the same time, many Purim parties unfortunately invoke an easily misinterpreted Gemara as license for getting drunk. But as I have previously explained (see http://bit.ly/2VkwVDM), the simcha that we celebrate on Purim is not one of drunken stupor. Instead, it is one that helps us see good in the bad, make peace with the challenges that we confront in our lives, and overcome feelings of stress and worry. Moreover, the simcha that we draw from Purim is not meant to end the day after Purim, but instead, is meant to last with us for the rest of the year.
With this in mind, imagine a Purim shul service as not only being one with the Megillah, the noisemakers, and the many people who come to shul wearing fancy dress, but also one that provides those present with wisdom and tools to carry simcha with them beyond the day of Purim. It would be a fun service, but also one that consciously ‘plants shoots of joy’ into the hearts and minds of all those present.
I believe that this is what Purim can and perhaps should be, and if done right, I believe that it has the potential of transforming the ritual of reading the Megillah into a workshop of simcha that inspires all those present and helps make sure that the joy that we celebrate on Purim – like a sapling that is planted – continues to grow.