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Purim, the festival of laughter

Reason can't defeat the absurdity of anti-Semitism: what's left is either despair or finding the humor in it all

Purim is different. Jewish festivals are certainly a time of rejoicing, yet they all contain an element of seriousness. Surely, there is a commandment to rejoice on Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, sometimes even to extremes, but this joy has its definitions and boundaries; overall, it is a serious kind of joy.

On Purim, however, even when the festival is strictly observed according to all the rules and regulations — Megillah reading, Purim gifts, donations to the poor and Purim banquet — there is an overriding mischievous atmosphere, sometimes even a riotous one. Of course, its expressions differ from place to place and from one group to another, but Purim always involves an element of jest.

Come to think of it, this light-headedness is somewhat odd. Although Purim is a day of joy, it was preceded by an extremely difficult and threatening period. The Jewish people have always faced threats, troubles and battles with those who wanted to defeat them or conquer their land. Most of these wars, however, were not so different from the kinds of clashes that every nation experiences.

The event that preceded Purim was far more serious: it was not a war but a genocide plan, with the aim of wiping the Jewish people off the face of this earth. It was the very first manifestation of a phenomenon, which today we call anti-Semitism, extreme anti-Semitism.

In this specific case, Haman was overcome and hanged on the tree, and all his assistants were defeated. Yet history proves that he left behind numerous descendants and disciples. Anti-Semitism may have started with Haman, but by no means did it end with him. The descendants of Amalek are still in this world, and they are sprouting, growing anew in many times, and places. It does not seem that they have disappeared yet, not even in our enlightened, cosmopolitan era.

* * *

Anti-Semitism has often been explained and even justified over the course of time: the reasons given have been religious, racial, and cultural. But even if there is an element of truth in these excuses, the very proliferation of explanations points to a more basic problem, one that is not always articulated: the continuous existence of the Jewish people through thousands of years of suffering and distress is miraculous, a mystery which defies logic. Moreover, the same is true of anti-Semitism. This hatred is as mysterious as it is real, and all the explanations for it are external, and often also temporal and haphazard.

It is possible to defend ourselves against enemies who have a reason for hating us; that defense may sometimes resolve issues and even bring about mutual reconciliation. Against anti-Semitism — because of its illogical nature — there may be means of defense, but there is no way that we know of to uproot it. Over the past several centuries, Jews have tried different methods to resolve this issue: from total assimilation on the one hand, to the establishment of an independent state on the other. None of these attempts has solved the problem. They have changed or shifted the riddle; yet anti-Semitism still remains.

Therefore, we have only two possible responses left. The first is to do the best we can – as we did in the days of Esther and in other generations – to defend ourselves from evil and fight it. This should be done in any case, in order to gain some respite from the outbursts of hatred.

The second option is to laugh. We laugh not only about the downfall of anti-Semitic individuals or groups, but also about anti-Semitism’s absurdity, ridiculousness and inner contradictions. These cannot be confronted with or defeated by counter-arguments, but only with laughter: laughter about them and about us.

This laughter is the reflection of our intrinsic reactions. When faced with such an insoluble impasse, we can despair, disappear and abase ourselves — or we can laugh.

* * *

Laughter does not mean that there is a solution, for there is none. Instead, our laughter says – “I am not a part of this.” If we manage to laugh, it is because we have succeeded in extricating ourselves from its mess.

Through laughter, we pull ourselves out of history and we become immune to the guilt, the blame game and the anxiety. Through laughter, we declare that we are free even of our irrational bond with Haman’s hatred. We laugh at Haman, Ahasuerus and all their successors because we are the ones who will endure. Our enemies will survive only as the punch line of jokes.

The day after Purim, we begin thirty days of preparation for Passover. As Judaism teaches us, elation must find expression in action. Our joy that “He has not assigned our portion as the others, nor made our destiny the same as multitudes,” is expressed both in good spirits and in the serious activities that follow the laughter.

* * *

Thus, we prepare for Passover. We clean the Chametz, which also purges whatever is external to us. We scour and scrub our innermost essence – our destiny assigned by the One who has “chosen us from among all the nations.”

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the founder of Shefa and The Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications.

About the Author
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the founder of Shefa and The Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications. In 2012 he completed his monumental, 45 volume translation of the Talmud into modern Hebrew. The Steinsaltz Talmud has been translated into 29 volumes in French and 5 volumes in Russian. In 2012, the first volume of the “Koren Talmud Bavli” in English with Rabbi Steinsaltz's commentary was published. Adin Steinsaltz was awared the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, for his educational achievements in opening the Talmud and was was among the first recipients of the Israeli Presidential Award of Distinction, for his contribution to Israeli society and its standing in the world. In 2012, Rabbi Steinsaltz received a National Jewish Book Award for the English Koren Talmud Bavli from the Jewish Book Council (USA). He was also the recipient of the French Order of Arts and Literature.
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