Passover as Comedy
The other day – after I reviewed the Passover Haggadah – I reread the Book of Esther!
This was not because I had nothing else to do or because I missed Purim so much that I couldn't let go. No, I went back to Esther because there is something about the Book of Esther that has great meaning on Passover.
Yes, Esther, the book of Purim.
Yes, Esther, that book on which we base so much silliness and laughter.
Yes, Esther, which teaches something important about Passover and Judaism in general.
Let's think back one month to Purim, when we read the Book of Esther and encountered King Ahashverosh, ruler of the massive Persian Empire. We meet him in a ludicrous setting: drunk, showing off to his courtiers. He calls Queen Vashti to come parade in front of the assembly, and when she refuses, he consults seven advisors, whose legendary advice is to dismiss Vashti and find a new queen.
Ahashverosh does as he is told, and so begins the story of Esther, who will become his queen. Along the way, Haman threatens to exterminate the Jews. But before we get too worried, let's consider how the Book of Esther presents that villainous plot.
The truth is that Haman's plot unfolds in the middle of a ridiculous narrative.
It certainly is terrifying. Jews have known too many Hamans for us not to be on guard – and this Haman gets his way with almost no effort. A few words to the king and Haman has permission to do whatever he wants.
But, then again, Haman gets his way because the king in the Book of Esther isn't a serious character.
The same Ahashverosh who can't figure out what to do with his contrary wife agrees to kill the Jews because he barely pays attention. Ahashverosh is a buffoon. Later in the book, when he wants to honor Mordecai the Jew, he doesn't realize how unbearable it will be for Haman to do the honoring. Ahashverosh doesn't even realize that his own wife (who is related to Mordecai!) is a Jew.
How can that be, unless the Book of Esther is meant to be a joke? In fact, by the end of it all, everything is reversed. Esther holds a banquet. The king has a delightful meal and probably gets drunk again. Then he changes his mind again.
Up becomes down: Haman is revealed as villain and discarded. Down becomes up: Mordecai takes Haman's place as Prime Minister. The evil decree against the Jews is averted as easily as it was first begun. From mourning to joy, from danger to safety, it all takes place at the drop of a hat.
Do you know what kind of book Esther is? The Book of Esther is a comedy. Not the ha-ha funny kind or the stand-up laughter kind. Esther is a comedy in the most serious sense of the term. It's a comic book insofar as its story line, however perilous it may seem to be, resolves itself positively.
All's well that ends well – and that connects us to Passover because, come to think of it, Passover has the same "comic" component.
Passover, too, is a comedy, although it is a darker story.
Pharaoh is a far more serious figure than Ahashverosh – deadly serious. He doesn't act on a whim, as Ahashverosh does; rather, he sustains his campaign against our ancestors over time. When he is first challenged by Moses, Pharaoh cleverly adapts his program and demands that the Hebrew slaves gather their own straw in addition to making bricks. Pharaoh is absolutely in control, and it takes all of Moses' determination and God's intervention to win the day.
But the unlikely does take place. Up does become down: Pharaoh and his entire army are vanquished. Down becomes up: When the waters of the Sea of Reeds close, Moses stands tall with our ancestors in freedom.
In other words, we have a comic ending! All's well that ends well – or, as the Haggadah puts it, "We have traveled from slavery to freedom, from degradation to celebration, from the rule of evil to the rule of God."
This, my friends, is a comic vision of history! It's not the Marx Brothers or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. You don't laugh when you encounter Passover's comedy because this is comedy in the broadest sense of the word. It's a telling of the human story where there is hope in the end. Moses isn't Hamlet or Oedipus. Our Jewish story isn't a tragedy that implodes in on itself. Instead, it is a vision that promises something better can always happen.
Seriously speaking, our story tells us that we're heading for the Promised Land – and that is a kind of "comic" premise. I think it's what Elie Wiesel must have meant when he said, "What, then, are we humans? Hope turned to dust. But the opposite is equally true. What are we humans? Dust turned to hope."
There is much sadness in our Jewish experience and the overall human experience, which is why you can't have a seder without saltwater and maror. But you also can't have a Seder without sweet charoset, wine, and the promise of next year in Jerusalem.
What do I admire about Judaism? Although I would not have put in these terms until I saw it at Purim, I am inspired by Judaism's comic vision. Judaism is hope-full. Judaism is faith-full. Judaism is positive.
I don't necessarily laugh when I'm doing Jewish things, but I do smile and I do feel confident and stronger with Judaism because that's what it's all about: the belief that life has an up side, the conviction that dust can always turn to hope.
A final thought – Last week at a school seder one of the students proclaimed "Cheers!" after the Kiddush. At that moment, I suggested to the students that we Jews have a better way to approach celebration. Bitter as our experience can sometimes be, I suggested to the children that Judaism still insists on the best punch line I know.
When the day is done and the blessing is said and all the stories are told, we hold the glass high and insist, "L'chaim – to life!"
That's comic! But that's also our way of saying "yes" to yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro has been the rabbi of Temple Sinai in Springfield. MA since 1988.