One of the most frustrating features of life is when someone doesn’t get the joke. Watching them take literally what was clearly meant in humor is always sad.
Unfortunately, this is the sight I see every Purim during the reading of the Book of Esther. While the synagogue usually has a high degree of levity that is not seen at any other time of the year, and while the reading will be disrupted with boisterous noise and boos at the mention of the villain of the story, Haman, there is no one laughing. But the megila is meant to be a comedy. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean it can’t be funny. The Bible is filled with humor. The universal problem with humor, though, is that you need to understand that you’re hearing a joke in order to get it.
In order to truly understand the megila, you need to realize that it was meant to be a comedy. How can one not recognize the comedy of Haman of falling upon the king’s bed at the worst possible time, leading Ahasuerus to proclaim. “You mean to conquer the queen with me in the house?!” Great stuff! In her enlightening commentary on the Book of Esther, Adele Berlin cautions us to be more precise in our choice of words. She believes that the correct word to describe the megila is “farce.”
“A ‘farce’ is described as a type of comedy designed to provoke the audience to simple hearty laughter... To do so it employs highly exaggerated or caricatured character types and puts them in impossible and ludicrous situations, and makes free use of the broad verbal humor and physical horseplay!” What the megila does is to make fun of the Persian government and, in turn, of all governments.
Berlin explains that “the normally sedate affairs of state, the carefully organized and controlled government structure, the legal system, the efficient postal system” – all are made fun of here.
She points out that the story is structured on repetitions and reversals, climaxes and anticlimaxes. The audience’s expectation is continually heightened, only to be frustrated again and again by another complication or delay.
The strong role the women play in the megila is to be contrasted with the inept men that surround them. The exaggerated numbers, such as 127 provinces; 180-day parties; 12-month beauty spas; 50 cubit gallows andHaman’s promise of 10,000 talents of silver; and are all meant to be funny.
For example, let’s look at the sheer magnitude of 10,000 talents of silver. The biblical talent weighed approximately 30 kilograms. Ten thousand talents would weigh 300,000 kilograms, or 30 tons. In modern dollars its value would be approximately $315 million! How about the very names “Mordecai” and “Esther”? Mordecai comes from the pagan god Marduk and Esther from Ishtar. It would be like telling us a story in modern times in which the hero and heroine of the Jewish people were named Jesus and Christine! How’s that for a laugh?
“Another characteristic of farce is when two characters misunderstand the same event in two very different ways.” When Mordecai saves the king’s life, instead of rewarding him, Ahasuerus promotes Haman. Haman erects a gallows but can’t use it until he receives permission from the king. When he arrives to get permission, the king asks what should be done for a man that the king wants to honor. Haman cannot even imagine that the king could be talking about anyone but him. But the man the king wants is the very same Mordecai that Haman had come to ask to kill. It doesn’t get funnier than that! Berlin observes that while a major policy decision like killing all the Jews is made on a whim, while what to do with the recalcitrant Queen Vashti is a gigantic political crisis. Again, we are treated to “exaggeration, caricature, ludicrous situations, practical jokes, coincidences, improbabilities and verbal humor”.
They’re all here.
The reader can’t but help but notice the repetition of the party theme again and again. There are a total of 10 parties, setting the stage for our own party that we have in commemoration of the Jews’ victory. The megila both begins and ends with a party; in fact, the party is the setting at which all major events in the story occur; Esther is made queen at a party and saves her people at a party.
This, of course is the reason we have the celebration of Purim, which is the only holiday that is mentioned in the Bible but not the Torah.
Having said all this, what is this story doing in the Bible? Our sages have explained that Esther was the last book accepted into the canon precisely because it was the last message given to Israel before God was to go verbally silent. The essence of the story is about a man and woman who have to manipulate politics and opportune situations in order to save the Jewish people.
There is no mention of God in the megila because from then on God was going to be in the background of Jewish history. There would be no more seas split or manna from heaven.
This story serves as an example to future Jewish leaders on how to navigate Jewish history.
They must act without hearing the Divine voice. They must have faith in previous promises made by God and in the covenant He made with their ancestors. Just as God was absent in the story of Esther, but still still pulling the strings behind the scene; so too would He continue to pull the strings of Jewish history though His silence might be deafening.
The story God chooses to demonstrate all this is a comedy because the final message the Bible is trying to tell us is that one of the most important secrets to our survival will be Jewish humor!