Purim’s Radical Laughter

In Amnesty International’s recently released annual report, its authors state that the prevalence of hate crimes and hate speech world-wide have not been this high since the 1930s.  This year has seen thirty-six different countries closing their doors to refugees and sending them back to the very conflict zones they were fleeing.  It has been a year in which the chemical warfare and bombings perpetrated against the Syrian people has continued, has worsened.  This year has seen language hostile toward vulnerable minority groups gaining volume and acceptability, often coupled with violence, targeting Muslims, people of colour, Jews, women, and LGBTQ folks.  The visible ugliness is bubbling to the surface south of our border, and it is right here in our own backyard.

These serious attacks on human dignity and human rights call for strong and serious responses.  It has been so inspiring to see people around the globe organizing, mobilizing, reaching out to create partnerships and relationships of support, and ally-ship between different communities.  It has been so inspiring to participate in those efforts through the DJC as central to our commitments as a Jewish community.  And, of course, none of this is in the least bit funny.  And yet, alongside focused, serious, sustained actions, I want to draw upon the provocative wisdom that Purim offers into the mix – the wisdom of radical laughter.

The narrative of Megillat Esther portrays the Jews as a vulnerable minority precariously living under the rule of a wealthy, self-important, rather dim-witted king, Achash’verosh, who is easily influenced by the hateful, fear-mongering, arrogant adviser Haman.  This is a narrative in which sexism, racism, and capitalist gluttony abound.  The threat of genocide hangs over the Jews throughout the story and the actual slaughter of the Jews throughout this vast kingdom, stretching from India to Ethiopia, is just barely averted.  Read through serious eyes, it is a terrifying story.

But Purim is not a holy day of fear.  It is a high and holy day of laughing in the face of terror.  Other Jewish festivals teach us to strengthen our muscles of opposing oppression, enacting justice, protecting the vulnerable.  Other Jewish festivals gather us solemnly to connect with our own vulnerability as the foundation of our gratitude, our interdependence, and our moral responsibility.  Purim is strengthening a different muscle – the power to turn the world upside down through laughter.

Chapter 9 of the Megillah uses the phrase v’nahafoch hu — it was inverted/turned upside down.  Power is inverted.  The powerful Haman becomes a servant to Mordecai, leading Mordecai through the streets on horseback, dressed as a king.  Then Haman is hanged on the very gallows he built for Mordecai.  The masses throughout the kingdom who took up weapons to stir fear and kill the Jews themselves become afraid and fear for their own lives.  All the forces of destruction are brought to their knees.  Terror is transformed into salvation, into rejoicing.

The key of v’nahafochu hu at the end of the story becomes the liberatory lens through which we celebrators experience the whole story, the whole of reality, for this one day.  We, in our costumes, dressed as the opposite of who we really are, turn the world on its head.  We, who literally or/and on the level of consciousness follow the mitzvah to be so “fragrant”/drunk that we can’t tell the difference between “cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai”, invert power and vulnerability, fear and belly-laughing.  In the face of a reality that is cruel, and in the face of those who are leading, drunk with their own power and behaving irresponsibly, we arm ourselves with resilient, audacious, empowering laughter and triumph by being light, silly, raunchy, poorly-behaved, and powerful.  We practice staring fear in the face and flipping it the bird.  In real life, fear and abuses of power can be paralyzing.  And in real life, we need lightness and more than a little audacity to be mixed in with our seriousness so that we move bravely, powerfully, and keep our robust, juicy humanity as large as possible.  Let’s see what outrageous wisdom and buoyancy this practice can give us for the work ahead.

Thursday, March 9th, 5:30 pm ~ Come practice your radical laughter this month at the DJC Community-Wide Purim Celebration.
Saturday, March 11th, 8:00 pm ~ Musical Havdalah and Megillah reading with Makom at the Keiver Shul, 25 Bellvue Avenue, in Kensington Market.  I will be chanting Chapter 8.
Sunday, March 12th, 11:00 am ~ Back to the Keiver again for more Megillah reading with Makom.
Sunday, March 12th, 3:00 pm ~ Join me for Pussy Hats & Poly-Esther Purim Feast & Edgy Learning.

Posted in Rabbi's Message