Creating Joy in Times of Crisis

Uplifting the Transparent  Victims: This Purim, we must not forget the thousands of Israelis displaced from their homes and living in hotels across the country.

Prof. Zehavit Gross, Dean of the Faculty of Education and Chairholder, UNESCO Chair for Values Education, Tolerance & Peace,  Bar-Ilan University, Israel

From the war that began on October 7, there are many victims: IDF soldiers and their families, the missing, the abducted, the wounded, and other circles of physically and mentally harmed. Among this harsh and long list are the displaced – those men and women who were forced to flee or evacuate their homes voluntarily to hotels or shelter areas. It is forbidden for us as a society to make them transparent victims.

We must be more attentive to their needs, their distress, and the fact that almost all of them are in an acute state of trauma. It is our duty to see and remember them. In hotels across the country, there are still many displaced from the south and mainly from the north of the country. Most of them wander in the lobby like question marks. They don’t know what tomorrow holds and until when they will remain displaced. Some of them (mostly from the north of Israel) don’t know if their homes have been destroyed and damaged, and what remains of them? Are their personal belongings, accumulated over the years, still intact or turned into dust and ashes from the direct impact of missiles and shells fired on their area, and mainly “What will be?”

Since the beginning of the war, I have been volunteering at one of the displaced centers in central Israel, delivering a weekly lesson on the weekly Torah portion, incorporating group dynamics processes. It’s hard for me to see the deep frustration of the displaced, their burning sense of indignation against the bureaucracy and the Israeli society that sees them (according to their perception and subjective feeling) as pampered individuals enjoying the comforts of the hotel… They tell me they feel like they are in a “golden cage” and dream of home, and especially of a quiet and safe place for themselves after being forced since the beginning of the war to give up their privacy and the basic right to “some quiet”.

This week, as part of the weekly lesson with the displaced at the hotel, I chose to analyze the Book of Esther. I started the lesson by asking which verse they most connect with in the scroll, and each gave a different answer. I told them that my verse is: “For the Jews there was light and joy and gladness and honor, so may it be for us,” and I want to focus on the topic of joy in the lesson. First, we went around, and I asked them to tell me how they think their joy will look like this Purim holiday? The question hit them like thunder on a clear day… They almost burst into tears (I saw real tears on the participants’ faces) and found it difficult to answer.

They all spoke nostalgically and painfully about what they had on Purim in past years and struggled to imagine the joy they will have (if at all) this upcoming Purim. In response to these feelings, my lesson focused on how Queen Esther created joy wisely through strategic thinking and ingenuity. The lesson focused on the words “and Esther put on royal clothing,” and through them, I explained to them how Esther, as part of a conscious strategic process, built a kingdom structure rooted deeply in the concept of joy. It was a process of textual, analytical analysis but also emotional therapy that reads the text of the scroll in relation to the current situation in which they live, allowing them a deep introspection into themselves and the mental powers they need to harness in order to generate and create joy in their souls.

In the Seven Blessings under the wedding canopy, we say the blessing “Who has created joy and happiness, groom and bride”. Joy is creation, and a person can create something out of nothing. Everyone needs to create joy. Joy does not come from the heavens, but it is a process of construction, and it is the responsibility of each and every one of us.

Esther creates joy by inviting Ahasuerus and Haman to a feast. And when the king is in a good mood at the feast, it is a wonderful opportunity to ask him to save the people of Israel from the wicked Haman. Esther creates redemption for the people of Israel through joy. Joy becomes a weapon for the salvation of the people of Israel.

In those days, in the capital Shushan, when the decree of Haman hung over the heads of the Jews “to kill and destroy all the Jews from young to old”, all the Jews lived in fear and great anxiety. There was much anti-Semitism in the streets of Shushan, and there was great depression. But in the midst of the terrible sorrow, Queen Esther put on royal clothing to save the people of Israel through joy. Thanks to Queen Esther, “For the Jews there was light and joy and gladness and honor”.

Even this year, despite our difficult situation, we must create joy as Queen Esther, the prominent spiritual feminist leader of Shushan, taught us. Unlike men, women use different special and effective weapons. Esther cleverly used joy as a weapon of war and managed to bring light and hope to the people of Israel and to all humanity.

I hope that this Purim, when we sit down to the holiday meal and rejoice in our homes, we will not forget the displaced who were forced to flee their homes due to the October 7 War, but try to hold on to every glimpse of hope that we, as the people of Israel in all communities around the world, must give them.