The Jewish genius for finding humor in just about every situation is a wonderful thing, but we seem to take it to an extreme when it comes to Purim. After all, attempted genocide is hardly a laughing matter, especially for a people with a history like ours. Yet Purim, which celebrates the Jews’ deliverance from a genocidal plot in ancient Persia, happens to be the Jewish holiday most associated with humor and irony. And while it no-doubt ends well for the Jews, one would think that even a narrowly averted holocaust should at best be a cause for thanksgiving, not laughter.
In his recent scholarly work called The Pattern Recognition Theory of Humour, author Alastair Clarke explains that “humor occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it, and that recognition of this sort is rewarded with the experience of the humorous response.” Interestingly, Jewish tradition teaches something similar when it tells us that our forefather Yitzchak, whose name literally means “he will laugh,” actually personifies the attribute of strict justice.
Although laughter and justice may appear to have little in common, the truth is that they both depend upon our ability to recognize law and order. If you recall any joke that you find funny, you’ll see that the humor occurs when the expectation or sense of order and progression created by the set-up of the joke is turned upside down by the punch-line. If the surprise elicited from this deviation is a pleasant one (and not all surprises are), the result is laughter. This is why humor can be such a powerful, and such a serious thing: When we find humor in something, we are essentially penetrating what seems to be the consistent pattern or appearance of that thing in order to expose a very different, inner truth.
I believe that there are basically two types of humor. The first is derived from a cynicism that views any pretense towards honesty, goodness or holiness as a joke. This is the cutting kind of humor you’ll often hear at parties, or on television and radio; the humor that essentially says: “We know that no matter how things appear on the outside, deep down people are selfish, corrupt and incompetent, and the world at large is cruel and uncaring.” This is the humor of Haman, the archenemy of the Jews, who’s plot to destroy the entire nation and not just Mordechai stems from his contempt for the very notion of a holy people and a caring God who lovingly guides human history.
The second type of humor is based upon a belief that human beings, in spite of their flaws and weaknesses, are essentially good, and that life, in spite of its challenges and disappointments, is nevertheless an immeasurably precious gift. This is a gentler kind of humor, often directed at ourselves as opposed to others; one that essentially says: “We human beings can be pretty crazy sometimes, and that craziness can cause us much grief and suffering, be we can laugh at our craziness because no matter how ludicrous we may appear to be, deep down it’s not who we really are.”
This is the true humor of Purim, derived from the realization that no matter how hopeless our circumstances may seem, or how unstoppable evil may appear to be, there is nevertheless a fundamental wisdom and goodness that underlies all of creation. It’s a joyous form of humor that comes when we discover that after all is said and done, we always have exactly what we need.
It’s not always easy to distinguish between these two types of humor, which is why you sometimes have to listen to the feeling behind jokes rather than their content in order to tell them apart. Nevertheless, the difference between them is anything but subtle. In fact, these two types of humor represent two conflicting world-views, as well as two entirely different ways of experiencing the people and events that make up our lives. The seemingly simplistic plot lines and cliché ironic twists of the Purim story are meant to dramatize the conflict between these opposing world-views in a way that challenges us to look inside and ask: Which of these outlooks do we share?
According to Jewish tradition, human beings are born with a tremendous capacity for self-delusion and distortion. In fact, the Rabbis in the Talmud teach us that: “A human being will not sin unless he is overcome by a spirit of temporary insanity” (Talmud, tractate Sota) We don’t need to read the Talmud to know that we can all be a bit crazy at times. But my personal experience, as well as my experience as a counselor has made me realize that our capacity for foolishness and folly, even with all of the pain and damage it can cause us, is really nothing more than proof that we are still human. The more critical issue lies in how we relate to that capacity.
Some people take their idiosyncrasies very seriously. They are profoundly disturbed by them, and judge themselves (and others) harshly for having them. In more extreme cases, their inability to tolerate their flaws can actually be more problematic than the flaws themselves, causing them to be preoccupied in a way that ultimately wears them down and leads to depression and despair.
Other people, while not exactly happy about their shortcomings and struggles, are nevertheless far more forgiving of themselves and others. They seem to understand that no matter how troubling their life may appear to be, their difficulties will not endure forever. They seem to know that the answers that they’re looking for are within their capacity to discover, even if they feel hopelessly lost in the moment.
These people seem to intuitively understand that regardless of the way things seem on the surface, deep within, they and everyone else already posses the resources that they need to succeed in life. But what’s most remarkable about these people is that their faith in humanity’s innate common sense and goodness is the very thing that leads them to seek it out, and ultimately, bring it out of themselves and the people in their lives.
The old adage, what you see is what you get, is undeniably true for everyone. The only question is, how deep are you willing to look? May our joy and laughter this Purim bring with it a deeper vision that inspires us to reveal the goodness that exists within ourselves and others, so that the day may soon arrive when we will all experience first-hand the ultimate joy, captured so beautifully in the Psalms of King David:
“A song of ascents. When Hashem will return the captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with glad song.” (Psalm 126)
Wishing you a happy Purim,