Passover and the freedom to laugh
Freedom is much on the mind of Jews around the world right now: Passover, the holiday which celebrates freedom itself, begins at sundown this evening. Freedom has many forms. There is freedom from slavery, exploitation, hunger, poverty. And freedom from willful ignorance of the world around us and from being unable to improve our lives, and the lives of others, and the life of our planet. Often overlooked, though, is freedom from lack of a sense of humor. Humor — a grace note in life – bestows levity, pleasure and a healthy perspective on the dreariness that can creep up on us.
Dreariness is inevitable, and we all have different ways of responding to it. Let’s consider two literary figures’ stance toward the drear. If Edgar Allen Poe, for example, was a stranger to dreariness, he wouldn’t have begun The Raven with: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary.” Poe’s problem was that he couldn’t extract himself from those dreary midnights, and hence died soon after he was found disoriented on the streets of Baltimore, possibly drunk, certainly disoriented and definitly scorned by the literary establishment of his day. On the other hand, William Makepeace Thackeray opined that “life without laughing is a dreary blank.” Back to dreariness, but this time accompanied by a push to depart from the lackluster-ness of life, and how better than with a grin, a guffaw, or a titter.
We don’t know if Moses laughed: he was probably too busy warning Pharaoh he’d suffer another plague if he didn’t release his slaves. And 40 years wandering in the desert wasn’t the sort of trek that would put anyone in a good mood. Moses’ massive accomplishment – liberating possibly as many as two million Hebrews from bondage – was sufficient to stoop his posture, furrow his brow and silence whatever small reservoir of humor he may have (improbably) possessed.
Freedom’s responsibilities and obligations often bury the pleasures that accompany it. Freedom is a wondrous state. Reflecting on it can be an act of full, unalloyed appreciation. Which is why many haggodot (the books used at seders that tell the Passover story) dutifully state, “Anyone who discusses the Exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy.” They are, indeed. These (and many other) discussions can be dense and pointed or light and exultant. True freedom – not the preachy, guilt-inducing kind, but the buoyant, elevating kind – comes with the opportunity to look at life from many sides. By loosening us from our moorings and our preconceptions, humor endows our life with variety, surprise and delight. So much, in fact, that while we never quite know what’s around the corner, we greet it with a smile and either embrace it as it is or welcome the opportunity to make it better. Indeed, this is precisely the gift of humor: the harmonious balance between what is, what was and what we hope will be. Poor Poe never had it, and overworked Moses maybe never missed it. We, the heirs of liberation, have the freedom to settle on our stance toward life. Let’s try to do it with some mirth. Otherwise, the joke is on us.
Arthur J. Magida’s last book is “The Nazi Séance: The True Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler’s Circle.” He is writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore.