This is the season of masquerade holidays, Purim and Carnaval or Mardi Gras. They differ dramatically in their history — and in their meaning, messages and customs. Nevertheless, these holidays all resonate with the deepest chords of the human condition.
As holidays of laughter and the improbable, both Purim and Mardi Gras demonstrate a truth: things are not always what they seem.
Like the holiday celebrants, life itself is often masked, and truth hidden, the way identity hides under costumes and makeup. The holidays encourage playfulness and poke fun at authority and propriety. In both content and rituals, these holidays turn the usual order of things upside down, reminding us that life can and does change in a moment, and what we think we know can turn out to be its opposite. Drinking, cross-dressing and general silliness is the order of the day. These holidays delight in the unlikely and unexpected. That’s what makes us laugh.
Purim rituals take us beyond words. Wearing masks and parading in masquerade are acts that acknowledge what Carl Jung called the “shadow”. The shadow is our dark side, the part of ourselves that we struggle to contain, or deny, disown or defeat during the rest of the year. Within the safety and limitations of religion and culture, masked holidays provide an opportunity to take our shadow out for a walk in the sun, while still keeping it on a leash. We laugh in awareness of all we don’t know, can’t see and can’t predict. By dressing the darker human impulses in costumes and masks they are acknowledged, and civilized.
Commonalities notwithstanding, the differences between the holidays are important. For Catholics, Carnaval and Mardi Gras are the last blowout of decadence before the Lenten season of self-restraint, leading up to Easter. For Jews, Purim is the holiday of “drawing lots”. It tells the story of how an arbitrary and random persecution of the Jewish minority in ancient Persia was overturned, and a powerful would-be aggressor defeated.
A recent interpretation of the Purim story takes it to another level. Instead of reading it as merely a fable, Yoram Hazony grips Megillat Esther tightly and turns it, to reveal a guide to the fundamentals of diplomacy and political strategy (The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther). In Hazony’s hands the Megillah ranks alongside Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, or Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Politics may be some folks’ favorite sport, but that alone doesn’t account for the general popularity of the Purim holiday. You may have observed, as I have, that many shuls draw their biggest crowds on two holidays: Purim and Yom Kippur. Why is that?
There are many rabbinical commentaries on the connections between the two holidays: “Purim/k’purim”, the rabbis say. Yom Kippur is like Purim. They share a mirror image: Yom Kippur begins with a festive meal (the last meal before the holiday begins), and ends with a fast. Purim begins with a fast (Ta’anit Esther, the fast of Esther) and ends with a feast. Both days enable us to confront the anxiety of life’s unpredictability and fragility – one holiday confronts it with pious sobriety, and the other with the opposite.
Perhaps the most important lesson of both holidays is that joy follows forgiveness. Sukkot, the most joyous holiday of the Jewish year, follows just a few days after Yom Kippur. And the joyful celebration of Purim follows the forgiveness of Ta’anit Esther. There is no joy without forgiveness. Forgiveness opens up a space for joy.
Religious creativity encounters the shadow side of human life without fear. Knowing that forgiveness is possible, it faces the hidden and unpredictable in life with courage and joy.
By providing context and community, with irreverence and celebration, religious creativity turns laughter into an act of faith.
Chag Purim Sameach!
* An earlier version was published at PsychologyToday.com as “On Laughter and Improbability”