Jews Laugh Danger Away
Meit mitokh has’chok siman yafeh lo. / It is a good sign for a man to die laughing.
Babylonian Talmud, Ketuvot 103a
I would never belong to any club that would have me as a member.
Humor is just another defense against the universe.
I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous; everyone hasn’t met me yet.
Laugh and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
From “Solitude” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
As we ponder many events of recent time, you may possibly think that I will expound upon the connection between Purim’s story about Haman’s attempted genocide of the Jews and the tangible dangers that Jews face in the world today. I’m not going to do that.
The story of Purim as told in Megillat Esther is a story about danger and violence. The main antagonist of the Jews, Haman, seeks their extermination; but instead after numerous twists and turns and drinking parties, the story concludes with Haman and his sons hanged on the gallows they built for the Jews. Subsequently, the Jews are then given permission by the king to arm themselves. They take vengeance on and slaughter their enemies.
One would think that the celebration of Purim would be a militaristic spectacle. Shouldn’t there be songs and rituals praising the Jews who, in righteous retribution, shed the blood of their persecutors? Instead, Purim is a time of frivolity and silliness, of drinking adult beverages, of jesting and laughter. Merriment, drinking alcoholic beverages, irreverence, ridiculous costumes, funny noises, jokes, comical songs, and often a hilarious Purim shpiel rule the day.
We usually don’t think of the T’nakh as a source of humor. However, from early on, midrashim and rabbinical commentaries have interpreted the story presented in Megillat Esther in a humorous manner. Rabbinical annotations speak about Vashti, King Achaverous’ first wife, growing a tail and about Haman’s wife mistakenly emptying a chamber pot on the wicked Haman’s head. In fact, some modern Biblical scholars believe that the Megillah started out as an ancient Persian popular satire or comedy that was adapted by Jewish scribes during the Babylonian exile. We don’t, however, find too much humor in our T’nakh. The stories of the Bible touch on many arenas of life, but the lessons are overwhelming sobering and moralizing. That being the case, how did one of our holidays vastly diverge from the usual patterns of piety to become something of a “Jewish Mardi Gras”?
Some archeologists, Biblical scholars, and historians explain that in ancient times (and to some degree today) there was parallel religious practice among the people. There was the “official religion,” practiced and promulgated by the religious authorities of the time, the Cohanim and Sofrim/priesthood and scribes. In addition, “folk religion” was the informal religious practices of the common people. I believe part of that folk religion was humor. We Jews went on for centuries as a persecuted and powerless people. Our official religion gave us hope, comfort, faith, optimism, and meaning to our lowly state of being. Our folk religion, which included many superstitious practices such as amulets, incantations, special objects such as colored ribbons and strings, and other curious practices, gave us some sense of control over our often precarious circumstances in life. I believe the development of the unique sense of Jewish humor was part of that folk tradition that strengthened us. It gave us the ability to laugh at ourselves and our circumstances and go on energized and undaunted.
We have taken the story of Purim, which is filled with Machiavellian intrigue and the imminent threat of genocide, but using our unique Jewish sense of humor, we have turned it into a raucous comedy. We laugh in the face of danger. We lampoon our adversary, Haman, an evil enemy who plots the extermination of the Jews as an obtuse, feckless imbecile. When his name is mentioned, we make funny noises to show our disrespect as we “blot out his name.” This “Purim approach” was used throughout the ages as Jews made humor out of their circumstances and ridiculed their persecutors in private and themselves in public.
The old saying goes “laughter is the best medicine.” What was true in the past also rings true today. People often take things too seriously, feel threatened too easily, and are offended too quickly. How about laughing instead? We can step back and look at many of life’s challenges and we certainly can find what to laugh at, including ourselves. A bit of humor can energize and sweeten just about every aspect of life. There is even an opinion in the Talmud that before beginning a lesson in Talmud, the instructor should begin with a joke.
Wishing us all a Good Purim, Freilachen Purim, Purim Samayach, much laughter and fun,
[The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Bellerose Jewish Center.]