More than 18 years ago, I flew to Zagreb, Croatia, to visit my mother-in-law, who was then undergoing chemotherapy. My husband had been traveling back and forth to see her, but we both felt it was important I spend time with her as well. I took off from work, choreographed babysitting for our then infant and toddler, and boarded the plane.
I stayed in what had been my husband’s childhood bedroom and had fun poking around his things. One morning, I got so caught up in his youthful ephemera I jumped when my mother-in-law knocked on the door.
After we sat down on the edge of the bed, she handed me a beautiful pair of antique gold earrings that had been her mother’s. They were the kind you would find a reproduction of in an art museum gift shop, the sort I might pick out for myself. The gesture moved me with everything it said—that my mother-in-law embraced me as a daughter. And yet, I felt ill at ease taking the earrings, believing they belonged to my sister-in-law, who insisted I have them instead.
My mother-in-law was not long for this world. That was the elephant in the room, a stark contrast to the dainty earrings in the palm of my hand. The right thing was to let her happiness outweigh my discomfort.
She looked less burdened, almost healthier, buoyed by the joy she took in my acceptance of her gift. But she surprised me when she asked, “Are you happy?”
Happy about what? With her son? Of course. With the earrings? With misgivings. Or did she mean existentially? I wasn’t sure. I just told her yes.
Each time I turn the Jewish calendar to the month of Adar, I am reminded of that exchange. Adar is home to Purim, which falls this year on the evening of Feb. 28. It’s the festive holiday that celebrates the thwarting of Haman’s evil plot to kill the Jews in ancient Persia. Yet the Talmud doesn’t want us to wait for Purim’s arrival to get swept up in its jollity. It encourages us to increase our happiness starting from the rising of Adar’s new moon, picking up the tempo as we approach Purim day.
Though Adar is a time when we are uniquely attuned to our happiness, the Torah commands us to be happy year-round, to weave gladness into our observance and our lives. But let’s be honest. Not everything in life is a Purim carnival. Work and family pressures, big and small. The news. A flat tire. Then there’s the adulting it’s hard to find pleasure in. For example, on the day I wrote this column, I also compiled the paperwork for our 2017 tax returns.
Nearly two decades later, this happy-centric season still makes me wonder what my mother-in-law meant by her question. I cannot help asking myself, “Am I happy?” And what does it mean to be happy anyway?
Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project” (Harper Paperbacks, 2015), describes four stages of happiness — anticipate, savor, express, and reflect. Each of these resonates in our Purim celebrations, from the lead-up to the holiday to that first bite of hamantaschen to the groggers we wield as we remember to drown out Haman’s name. As I think about Purim now, it occurs to me there’s a fifth stage — to recognize, in particular, a happiness that has heretofore eluded us.
The most surprising part of the Book of Esther is that God’s name does not appear in the story. He remains hidden between the lines and letters, His invisible hand pulling the strings when we are threatened with annihilation and when Esther and Mordechai save the day. It is left to us to appreciate God’s presence throughout the megillah, to locate Him there ourselves, especially in the happy ending we still commemorate thousands of years later.
We might even experience something similar in our own lives — to finally encounter a force of goodness we have not been able to see because it has been overshadowed for so long. My mother-in-law’s question initially confounded me, entwined as it was with the painful knowledge that it would be the last one she would ever ask me. But I now understand. It was a slow-release gift, a gem more valuable than her earrings.
There are numerous keys to happiness, and I’ve learned that the question, “Are you happy?” is among them. It’s a mantra that reminds me to keep looking for happiness in life’s nooks and crannies. Meanwhile, in the shadow of her question, my mother-in-law’s invisible hand suddenly appears, touching my face to remind me not to take whatever I find for granted.