A Purim directive: Laugh it up!

Little kids will laugh at anything. The simplest knock-knock joke or a tickle fest — even the threat of one — can so easily end in hysterics. They laugh because they are surprised by something unexpected in a world they are constantly discovering.

If only that kind of laughter came as easily as we got older.

While the laughter of childhood is characterized by the element of surprise, the laughter in adulthood becomes a way of managing stress (filmmakers know this well and skillfully employ any element of comic relief during an action thriller to release some of the tension). Laughter becomes a coping mechanism to get us through difficult times. Paradoxically, many of us are so loaded down with responsibility and worry that we don’t indulge often enough in this emotional and physical release.

It’s a good thing Purim is nearly here.

Purim is a holiday that isn't ripe with laws and ritual obligations save for reading the Megillah, giving mishloach manot (gift packages) to friends, matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor) and having a festive meal. However, there is one directive for observance that is very clear: “they (The Jews) should make [Adar 14 and 15] days of feasting and joy …” (Scroll of Esther 9:22).

We each might experience this commandment on a different level. For 5-year-olds, putting on funny costumes, enjoying bobbing for candied apples at the synagogue carnival and seeing the rabbi dressed as a superhero evokes one kind of joy. For most grown-ups, joy and laughter may be an expression of a different kind. While we appreciate the dark comedy of the Megillah, our laughter also is a collective sigh of relief in having averted near annihilation unscathed.

The storyline of Purim, which this year falls on the evening of Feb. 23, is a dramatic comedy of errors and grand gestures with over-the-top reactions. It is so different in content and style than nearly every other book of the Bible that scholars speculate about the veracity of the story altogether. Drunken parties, political posturing and sexual innuendos weave their way throughout the narrative.

The Megillah begins with a raucous party hosted by King Achashveros, who demands that his wife, Vashti, appears (only! as commentators point out) in her crown. After refusing to appear naked, she is told to never appear before the king again. After his “wise” counselors offer advice, an edict is sent out across the provinces demanding that all wives respect their husbands’ every demand. Not sure what all the wives had to say about that!

It is a story about reversals. The Megillah has Mordechai, the Jewish hero who refuses to bow down to Haman. The act of disobedience ignites the ire of Haman, the recently promoted chief adviser to the king. Haman, in turn, calls for the destruction of all Jewish people.

Esther, who until this point has hidden her identity, then reveals that she also is a member of the doomed people and calls on Achashveros to punish Haman. Achashveros does by bestowing all the raiments and honors that were reserved for Haman to Mordechai. Further, the very gallows that Haman had ordered to be built for the hanging of Mordechai are the ones on which Haman meets his end.

Purim is a story of incongruencies. A people once despised and on the verge of destruction are told that they can defend themselves thanks to Esther’s petitions to the king and suddenly become a force with which to be reckoned. For pragmatic reasons, the text indicates that “many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.”  Averted disaster becomes an unusual catalyst for conversion.

While grand gestures, plot reversals and a storyline that doesn’t mesh quite right are elements that are employed by comedy writers and will evoke laughter, our general state of reverie on Purim is born from what the philosopher John Morreall observes about the evolution of laughter. Morreall believes that human laughter became a gesture of shared relief that a dangerous situation had passed. Laughter puts us into a state of relaxation and can build bonds between us.

As the cultural anthropologist Mahadev Apte observes further, “Laughter occurs when people are comfortable with one another, when they feel open and free. And the more laughter [there is], the more bonding [occurs] within the group.”

Jews have always used humor as a coping mechanism for Jewish survival and as a common reference point to connect to other Jews. Jewish comedians knew this well. As a people who have been oppressed for so long, we have always appreciated laughing at our situation before others could.

So this Purim, hold the childlike laughter of discovering new things (maybe someone you didn’t expect will give you mishloach manot; maybe you will surprise yourself at your generosity when you give a gift to the poor) and appreciate the narrative of the Purim story itself. But most important, experience the joy that comes from release, knowing that the Jewish people not only survives but continues to thrive.

As you raise your glass at Purim, toast “l’chaim” — to life — and to a life filled with deep laughter.

Jews, Food and Holiness

I suppose it would be nearly impossible to go through an entire week of Passover for Reconstructionist and Reform Jews, not to mention eight days for the rest of you, without the profound experience in practically every pore of your body that Jewish identity is inextricably bound up with food.

As a rabbi, naturally I have heard all the jokes about Jews and food and the negative characterization of minimalist Jewish identity referred to as "gastronomic Judaism." But this past week of Passover, coupled with this week’s Torah portion, has reminded me that when it comes to Jews and food, it’s really no laughing matter.

When Antiochus, the Syrian-Greek antagonist of the Chanukah story, wanted to dramatize his disdain for Judaism and Jewish civilization and his insistence on the rejection of Jewish law

and custom, he did so by bringing swine into the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem.

Sixteen hundred years later, when the grand inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition wanted to test the Christian loyalty of their recent converts from Judaism (after which they often would kill them anyway), the very first test of authentic Jewish rejection would be to watch them eat swine. Four hundred years after that, when the Nazis would recreate the horrors of the Inquisition with a thousand times the evil, they would force-feed pork to rabbis for sport before cutting off their beards and then shooting them.

Yes, food and Jews have gone together at least for the past 3,000 years, ever since this week’s Torah portion detailed the do’s and don’ts of biblical dietary laws and laid down for all time the famous restrictions on what Jews can and can’t eat if they want to be true to the biblical mitzvot.

Earlier this week, I was sitting with a girl who will soon celebrate her bat mitzvah. As we spoke about this week’s portion, she told me that her family isn’t kosher, and she hasn’t grown up keeping Jewish dietary laws. And then she told me in the most matter-of-fact way possible, as if it were so obvious and self-evident that it was almost not worth mentioning, "Of course we don’t eat bread during Passover, and our form of kosher is not to eat food that we know came from places were workers are oppressed."

Judaism and food — a contemporary reinvention of food as a vehicle for holiness in everyday life. What is now called "eco-kosher" represents what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan would have called "transvaluing," the powerful notion in this week’s portion that the food we eat provides a daily opportunity to experience the holiness inherent in our relationship with sustenance.

Just as every time we bless food before we eat, it transforms the very act of eating into a moment of encountering the sacred, each time we make conscious choices of what we eat based on Jewish values, we elevate food and the act of eating to the level of holiness.

Many of my friends have chosen to become vegetarians as an organic form of keeping kosher. Others stop eating meat as a way of giving kavod (respect) to the earth itself. Others do so because they recognize that if we took 25 percent of the grain used to feed animals intended for slaughter and redirect it to people, we would be able to feed the entire world with ease.

Any of these choices can be made as a way to reflect the sacredness with which the Torah bids us approach food and sustenance in this week’s portion. Some of us will choose to follow the laws of kashrut as they are written in the Torah. Others follow the later rabbinic interpretations of the biblical laws. Still others see ourselves as partners in the evolution of Jewish civilization and make dietary choices designed to sanctify our lives and the spiritual consciousness with which we eat every day.