Everything about Purim is strange.
Most of Judaism’s rituals and observances are meant to create a solemn atmosphere of holiness, while Purim seems to purposefully negate all of that and go out of its way to create an atmosphere of levity, humor and laughs.
Purim marks the salvation of the Jews from a mass genocide proposed and approved of by the Persian court. The story of the holiday and the eventual salvation is told in the Book of Esther.
Adele Berlin, in her commentary to the Book of Esther, points out that everything about the story is exaggerated and meant to bring one to laughter. The exaggerated numbers – 127 provinces, 180 days of partying, gallows 50 cubits high, the 10,000 talents of silver paid to exterminate the Jews – are meant to make fun of Persia, its government and, in turn, all governmental affairs. (The 10,000 talents of silver would be worth about a quarter of a million dollars today.)
Berlin believes that Esther is best categorized as a 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!”
How can one not help but laugh when Haman thinks the king wants to honor him and lays out his fantasy of a just reward, only to be informed that his archenemy Mordechai is to be the one who receives these honors? Or how about how when Haman falls upon the queen’s bed at the most inopportune time? Mordechai and Esther, pagan names, are the heroes of the Jews and the harbinger of their salvation.
The question, of course, is what is this book doing in the Bible? If the story is meant to be funny and exaggerated, why does the Bible include it in its canon? And just to add mystery to the question, why is God not mentioned in the Book of Esther?
To understand the answer we need to realize one other important fact about the book of Esther: it was the very last book added to the biblical canon. Its position as the very last book means it is the very last message to the Jewish people.
And what would that message be?
I THINK the answer is how we Jews are to navigate the world of exile and live without God actively speaking to us from on high.
The message is that for us to survive, we need to navigate politics and look inward for our salvation. God is no longer going to swoop in and split a sea for us, nor is he going to send plagues upon our enemies or a prophet bearing His word.
The book of Esther finds Mordechai and Esther in crisis. The future of the Jewish people is in their hands. And as the story teaches us, it will be by playing politics and statecraft that they will succeed in saving the Jews.
But while all of that may be true, why is humor the means to teach all of this?
Perhaps the answer is that it won’t be through playing politics alone that we will survive, but we will need comedy and laughter as well.
I think Jewish humor is one of the secret weapons of our survival. Our ability to find humor in even the worst situations helped us survive them and overcome the challenges we faced. Even in the Holocaust, Jews in the ghettos and camps told jokes to one another to help them get through the horrors they were experiencing.
RIGHT NOW, a terrible war is being fought in Ukraine. As I am the grandson of Jews who ran away from pogroms in Ukraine a hundred years ago, the irony is not lost on me that Jewish communities around the world are praying for the safety of the Ukrainian state and people.
But perhaps the most interesting part of all this is that in the year 2022, Ukraine is now led by a Jewish clown, Volodymyr Zelensky. And it is exactly his past as a comedian and actor that is allowing him to serve in his greatest role on the grandest stage of all as the symbolic leader of the free world.
Zelensky, like Mordechai and Esther, holds high office in a gentile country, and he, too, is playing politics to survive. Perhaps he learned this lesson from reading the Book of Esther. ■
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.