Lighten Up - It's Supposed to Be Fun
Twelve years ago, on the occasion of my fifth Anniversary celebration here at Temple Emanu-El, I received one of the greatest compliments a rabbi can hear. A congregant told me, “Rabbi, you introduced me to the joy of Judaism!”
We often focus on the ethical and historical importance of our wonderful religion, the responsibility it cultivates in us to try to improve our world through righteous action. That reflects our understanding of the principle of ol haTorah, literally the “yoke of Torah,” the weighty responsibility inherent in our status as covenantal partners with God in this world. It is at the heart of our Jewish mandate to seek, always, to repair the world. But restricting our religion to that alone leaves out a central part of Jewish experience.
Judaism is supposed to be fun! Allied to the concept of human responsibility is the much merrier idea of simcha shel mitzah, the joy of commandment. The mitzvot are designed to add joy and goodness to our lives, and we have the privilege and possibility of celebrating them in the ways we fulfill them.
Never is that more true than in the wonderful, silly holiday of Purim coming up this month. Purim celebrates our redemption from likely destruction long ago in Persia. It is often connected to Hanukkah, not least for the way both festivals resonate with the very Jewish slogan, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” But there are differences between the holidays, too. While Hanukkah commemorates our salvation from spiritual destruction, and is certainly based on historical events, Purim remembers our rescue from physical destruction at the hands of an evil plotter, and it is likely somewhat apocryphal: we don’t know if Mordechai and Esther really existed, or if there truly was a wicked plot to kill all the Jews and steal their property 2400 years ago.
Nor does it matter. Purim, like later festivals such as Mardi Gras or Carnival, teaches us that religion has to embody the happiest parts of our personalities as well, and joy is an essential ingredient in the human relationship to God and to the world. We are literally commanded to celebrate, and to do so in ways that might not be appropriate at other times.
Satire, parody, broad humor, and all sorts of ridiculous costumes, jokes, and activities are actually required on Purim by Jewish law. On other days we are commanded to show respect for our incredible traditions. On Purim, we are literally commanded to make fun of ourselves and our own foibles and customs.
Here at Temple Emanu-El we have long worked nearly as hard to celebrate Purim fully and richly as we work to observe the many more serious festivals of the year. That’s not just because kids love Purim. Adults need Purim even more. In fact, all of our Purim Extravaganza shows are designed to appeal both to children of all ages and adults, to capture the humor and present it so that kids get the jokes on one level while adults understand the satire in a wholly different, more sophisticated way.
This year, we will be presenting the Book of Esther in all of its wild, complex, anarchic literal glory. Mind you, the original story is much like any popular Netflix or Amazon Prime series—House of Cards or Game of Thrones both come to mind, as does the new Star Wars movie. When you read Esther in the Bible you will discover a tale of palace intrigue, drunken revelry, egotism, sexism, manipulation, corruption, class violence, capital punishment, thwarted sexual assault, hanging, and a wide variety of other devilry. Of course, you will also read about human heroism and Jewish redemption from destruction. To hear the real thing presented aloud, in both Hebrew and English, attend the Traditional Megillah reading on Wednesday, March 23rd at 6:30 PM. You can boo Haman and cheer Mordechai and Esther, dress up in costume, eat Hamantashen, and enjoy a regular Purim.
But as is our 17-year old Temple Emanu-El tradition, we will also parody a contemporary musical in ways that parallel and create comedy that can be understood at multiple levels. Everyone is invited to celebrate with us as we present our theatrical Purim parody, The Book of Esther--a fantastic parody of The Book of Mormon, much cleaner than the original play, --on Sunday, March 20th at 10 AM. This is a full satirical parody musical, with costumes, sets, singing, dancing and the most unusual and entertaining beauty contest ever seen. Please don’t take this to be a serious effort to educate or transform the world: it is meant to be fun and silly, and we will work hard to make sure that it is.
Because on Purim even God is commanded to laugh. And we certainly are.
Chag Purim Samei’ach, may you enjoy a truly happy holiday of Purim,
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon