Bitter laughter

'When Adar begins we increase our rejoicing."

megillat esther 88 (photo credit: )
megillat esther 88
(photo credit: )
'When Adar begins we increase our rejoicing." It is very natural and understandable that the month when sorrow was turned to joy, when defeat was turned to victory and when we were delivered from the hands of a cruel enemy who intended to destroy us totally - "men, women and children" - should be a time of mirth and gladness. We would be less than human if we were not happy at such a turn of events. Purim is a time of laughter and mirth. It is a carnival of joy in which we assume false identities and act in ways that are unusual, or at least not normal for us. Excess drinking, for example, has not been the norm for Jews, yet we are told to indulge on Purim. We laugh at our enemies, and it has been said that the ability to laugh like that is therapeutic, and has helped Jews survive at times of great danger and suffering. Who does not get enjoyment from the thought of Haman having to lead Mordechai enthroned on the king's horse, wearing royal dress, through the streets of Shushan - especially when Haman suggested this to the king, certain in his excess pride that he would be the one on the horse! To see such a person "hoist with his own petard" is certainly cause for mirth. There is even macabre humor in the fact that Haman is later really "hoist" - strung up on the very stake that he erected for Mordechai! The Book of Esther is rife with such humor. Just think of the fact that the king himself has to be told by his eunuch what to do about Haman, who is caught on the couch with the queen. The king who reigned "from India to Ethiopia" does not even have the sense to think of Haman's punishment by himself. Nevertheless it seems to me that our enemies are not the only ones being mocked in the megila. The entire book is filled with irony and black humor, some of which is directed against us - or at least against the Jews of Persia. The "brave" hero Mordechai begins by telling Esther not to reveal who she is. The "good Jewish girl" - the first Jewish beauty queen - is to pretend to be a pure-blooded Persian! Indeed, things are topsy-turvy - which explains why so much of what we do on Purim is unusual, if not abnormal. And Esther goes along with this masquerade. The nice Jewish girl marries a non-Jewish king and lives with him - to say nothing of what is hinted that she had to do in order to be chosen by him. Later translations and rabbinic tradition tried to soften all of this, adding prayers when there were none, finding all kinds of excuses and ways around the facts stated in the megila, not understanding the humor or being embarrassed by it. And how does salvation come to the Jews? In Egypt it came about through God's mighty signs and wonders. On Hanukka it comes through the force of arms of the brave Maccabees. But on Purim it is because there happened to be a Jewish queen (unknown to the king) who could expose the enemy. What would have happened if she had not been there? Would "salvation have come through another source?" More recent history has given us the tragic answer to that question. It seems to me that the message is rather clear: Don't depend on things like that happening; the likelihood is not great. The Book of Esther is generally understood today as a historical novel based on the life of Jews in the Diaspora rather than an account of some specific incident. But it is not merely a novel; it is also a comedy, even a farce. Some believe it to be the Jewish adaptation of the story told at the annual Persian carnival. It is the only book to be situated totally in the Diaspora, and Purim is the only holiday dedicated to a specific group of Jews outside Israel, rather than to the history of the entire Jewish people. Perhaps it is a message of encouragement to Diaspora Jews that they can attain great rank and even some sort of independence in that land, but perhaps the message is different. The message may be that living in the Diaspora is a difficult and tricky thing. Having to depend upon the good will of the monarch and his intelligence may work out, but will it always? What will happen when there is no Esther? All in all, the humor in the book is a black humor and the laughter is a bitter laughter. It is also subtle. Note the end of the book, in which we are told that Mordechai was highly regarded by "the majority" of the Jews. Does this not mean that there were some - albeit a minority - who did not esteem him? Even in the end the book mocks itself. The great hero could not get the approval of all the Jews, only of some of them! Indeed it is a marvelous book and a marvelous holiday, as long as we do not take it too seriously. We all need a bit of laughter in our lives and there is nothing better than being able to laugh at ourselves. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.