We all have dates on the calendar that serve as navigational positions for the rest of our year. It could be a birthday or perhaps a major holiday like Rosh Hashanah or Pesach, gently creeping up in our thoughts as we sense their approach.
For many, the year is marked by yahrzeits. We look ahead on the calendar, knowing that a date imbued with intense emotion is on the way. The date marches inevitably closer, and plans are often rearranged to allow time to reflect. Writing this column, I carry such an awareness as the Jewish month of Adar begins and we approach Purim this week.
Two years ago, the onset of Adar felt light and joyous. Naomi was pregnant with our fifth child and due to give birth in a few days, and Purim and the due date were on the horizon. When Yocheved Leba z”l was born just before Shabbat, she was feisty and well. When the hospital asked that she stay in the hospital for that Shabbat before Purim, we agreed. And when the shockingly unexpected occurred and she passed away after Shabbat, we were lost.
One year ago, the onset of Adar felt hesitant and anxious. Naomi was pregnant with our sixth child and due to give birth in a few days, and Purim and Yocheved’s yahrzeit were on the horizon.
When Hillel Meir was born just a few hours after I came home from saying Kaddish for Yocheved at the conclusion of her yahrzeit, he was sweet and well. We had gone back to the same hospital, were placed in the same labor and delivery room, and were attended to by some of the same nurses. When the hospital asked that he stay in the hospital for that Shabbat before Purim, we agreed with great hesitation. And when he came home and had his bris, we cried.
Sometimes HaShem walks us down the same path all over again, just to show us that it can lead somewhere different.
This year the onset of Purim feels unclear and anticipatory. I know what it was two years ago, and I know what it was last year. But this year is uncharted territory. It isn’t two years ago, and it isn’t last year. It is new this time around, with imprecise visibility ahead.
The timing is quite fitting, for Purim is the holiday of the unexpected. According to the opinion of Rabbi Yossi (Talmud Megillah 19A), the heart of the Purim story is seeing Haman’s plan and how it turned out the opposite of what he intended. In the words of Megillat Esther (9:1), “matters were turned upside down.”
The coming Thursday marks the Fast of Esther, when that courageous woman went to the king to plead for her people, fully expecting that he would kill her. Haman in turn planned to hang Mordechai and kill the Jews. Our week begins with fear, but by the end of the week, it is a different world. It is Haman who was hanged, and the Jews were elevated in the kingdom.
Purim practices reflect this theme. We dress up to mask what is truly underneath, eat cookies with a hidden center, read the Purim story that turns out differently than expected and more. Purim reminds us of how unexpected life can be, often in wonderful and sweet ways and at times in painful ways. Can we prepare for the unexpected? Not really, since the possibilities are too numerous to anticipate them all. But we can know that it will happen.
In the meantime, we can appreciate that the present is to be savored. The future may be unknown. But what we have is in front of us right now in all its glory. It may not be perfect, but its presence and availability are certain. Treasure it for what it is. Pull your loved ones a bit closer, take a good look at where you are and what you like about it, and maintain that focus for as long as you can. Ignore the imperfections unless there is something practical you can do about them.
If tomorrow brings what we expected, enjoy it all the more. If it brings a surprise (and hopefully a good one), appreciate in it the new beauty that it contains.
Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at Rabbi@BethJacobOakland.org.