Purim’s not for clowning around

Kids can sometimes be more astute than adults. Consider clowns as an example. Kids often don’t like them, but adults keep inviting them to parties. Roughly 7% of all people are afraid of clowns (just a tad less than the 10% who fear flying). While we don’t have precise stats (coulrophobia is a relatively new fear), I’d guess that this number is higher in children. Many kids are terrified of mimes, ventriloquist dummies, life-size cartoon characters and good old-fashioned clowns. Yet, we parents insist on entertaining our kids with them. I’ve had my children bolt from an Uncle Moishy concert when the “Mitzvah Men” appeared on stage, and often have to evade sidewalk mimes. Still, we parents keep nudging our little‘uns to “say hi to Bozo!”.

So, why do people fear clowns?

Blame Stephen King? His terrifying creation, Pennywise surely precipitated this widespread phobia. Actually, King invented that character because he believed that clowns scare kids “more than anything else in the world”. Clowns are mischievous, they play unexpected tricks on people, and that alone will make you jittery.

Most likely, people fear clowns because of those painted smiles. Much of human communication is non-verbal. When someone talks, we subconsciously pick up critical messages from their eyes, the corners of their lips and their brows. A clown’s fixed-expression and overdone makeup hide the nuanced messages that a face would naturally convey. And that unnerves us.

Kids are especially attuned to micro-expressions. When your child falls flat on his face, he first checks your reaction before he bursts into tears. You can assure your pre-schooler that her artwork is gorgeous, but she’ll read your eyes to see if you really mean it. Children are afraid of clowns because they can’t tell what the clown really feels. Fake emotions frighten innocent minds.

We profess to our children that we value open, honest relationships. Then we send in the clowns.

We’re about to celebrate Purim. It’s a jolly, colourful day, with all the elements that tickle a child’s fancy: heroes who vanquish villains, sugary foods, silly adults and… clowns. And minions and ninjas and Hulks and pirates and vampires and Darth Vaders. Purim’s fear factor might even trump the Disneyland parade. If I were five, I’d be terrified to go to Shul.

Our Purim masks are meant to remind us that G-d remained hidden throughout that miraculous story (as He does today). Purim costumes also recall how the king ordered Mordechai to parade through the capital, dressed in royal garb. These are relevant messages, but Jews didn’t always masquerade on Purim. The Talmud makes no mention of it. Purim make-believe first appears only in Medieval times.

Back then, people wore real smiles all year and the fake ones only once annually on Purim.

Nowadays, we tend to wear masks all year round. We plaster on a smile to camouflage the persistent stress of modern life. From makeup to Botox to rhinoplasty, society runs a multi-billion-dollar mask industry. Slap on a green face for Purim and you might look less scary than on an ordinary Monday morning.

The Talmud does not prescribe masks for Purim. On the contrary. To quote: “One is required on Purim to become inebriated until one can no longer distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai’”. No, we’re not expected to drink to escape. What the Talmud expects is that “when wine enters, secrets emerge”. Purim’s not a day to don a mask; it’s the day to peel it off.

With a mask on, you have license to let your hair down and partay! Isn’t that what Purim is all about? Silliness and losing your head. Stir up your fictional self with a dose of scotch and, off you go! Happiness in a bottle.

Only Purim isn’t about being silly, or losing your head or getting hammered. Purim is a serious holiday. It reminds us of the existential threats that stalk our people throughout our history. Purim challenges us to confront our true selves, to explore our commitment to Judaism and our connection with G-d- even during tough times. Purim is akin to, and in a sense more powerful than Yom Kippur[1].

Purim is a day of simcha, which is a whole lot weightier than frivolity and deeper than conventional happiness.

Leave it to the kids to clown about on Purim. They still know how to do it honestly. For us adults, we’re inclined to confuse simcha with debauchery and to cling to our well-worn, year-round masks, even as we beam through the plastic smirk we’ve hired.

Maybe it’s useful to try a different approach to Purim.

Rather than one-upping our neighbour’s outfit or having an alcohol-powered adloyada, we should try plumb the potency of real simcha. Simcha is usually elusive- both because of life’s stresses, and thanks to all the phony tools we use to convince the world that “we’re good”.

Together with family and like-minded close friends, we can use Purim to peel away the synthetic layers we collect through the year. We can explore the Purim story with fresh eyes, identify the Megillah characters- their challenges and messages- in our own lives. “What does our Haman voice sound like?” “How do we find our Mordechai resolve to counterattack?”

We might need a few lechaims en route; just enough to shed our made-for-social-media self, to open up to new insights and growth opportunities.

Purim invites us to drill deep until we find our rugged, undying faith in- and commitment to G-d. We all have it. It allows us unfettered simcha- not because life is perfect, nor because we need to show that we don’t care, but because we’ve touched our soul and realized that we and G-d are one and that He’s got our back, even when we’ve turned ours on Him. On Purim we celebrate our potential to make a difference, even just to one person, possibly to a corner of the World.

Our Purim masks will expire by Shushan Purim. Alcohol will leave us groggy and with a throbbing head. Clowning around one day usually means we’ll feel down the next. Real simcha shifts us in the long term.

Haman, the man, wanted to kill us. Haman, the mindset, is an old, evil clown, face drawn in a farcical grin, who conspires to replace simcha with the emptiness of a “good time”. Purim is time for Haman psychology to go. It’s time to get real, feel connected and experience the richness of true simcha.

[1] See Torah Ohr, Megillas Esther 93:4, as well as Tikkunei Zohar 21

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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