Mark Twain said it best: "Humor is tragedy plus time." On Purim, Jews laugh over a long-ago time of peril.
Once when I was driving through downtown Seattle, I was in a minor fender bender because I got cut off by some young Jew. At least that’s what her name sounded like — she was Korean, and even though her name sounded like “Some Young Jew,” I can’t remember exactly how it was spelled.
At first, nothing at all was funny about that accident. For several days, my life was a deluge of police reports, insurance documents and car-repair aggravations galore. Fortunately, the damage to both cars was minor, and nobody was hurt.
It took about a week. Then, complaining about the ordeal to a friend, I realized how funny it was. A rabbi getting into a car wreck with “Some Young Jew”? A professional comedy writer couldn’t have come up with such a story! It would have made Mel Brooks jealous.
Amid hassles and miseries of life, we rarely laugh immediately. Our pain and aggravation don’t allow for it. But then time passes, we gain some distance from the events, and that distance gives us the perspective to view them in a far broader context. What were once moments of pure aggravation or pain become small pieces of the vast and rich tapestry of life.
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Taking this broader view, the big pains sometimes become smaller. And once they shrink, it’s safe to laugh at them.
Miserable experiences turn funny in memory all the time. “We couldn’t find our car after the concert, and it was midnight before the parking lot cleared enough for us to find it!” “I drank an entire liter of soda the other day, and then got stuck in a five-hour traffic jam!” “When I had pneumonia last year, I was so feverish that I was hallucinating, and you should have heard the things I said!” In all of these situations and countless others, laughter becomes possible only when the pain is long, long past.
Perhaps Mark Twain said it best. “Humor,” he remarked, “is tragedy plus time.”
On March 8, Jews around the world will remember a time of peril and fear, and in response, we’ll laugh. It will be the holiday of Purim, the day when Jews celebrate and retell the events described in the Book of Esther. In ancient Persia, the story goes, the king had an evil adviser named Haman who was determined to destroy the Jews. Haman almost succeeded, but there happened to be a Jewish queen at the time named Esther, and with the help of her cousin Mordecai, Esther interceded on behalf of the Jews, and Haman was vanquished.
The holiday has the appearance of a Jewish Mardi Gras. There are carnivals and revelry; we dress in wild costumes; we read the Book of Esther, and at every mention of Haman’s name, we scream and holler and raise a ruckus with noisemakers to drown his memory out.
In other words, on Purim we remember a time of great peril for our people, and we laugh. Of course, there are plenty of other holidays when we remember our sufferings more somberly. But not on Purim. On Purim, we let loose.
Laughter, you see, is more than just a release from painful memories. Laughter is triumph. Life’s difficulty and pain try to crush our spirits, and often, at least for a time, they succeed. But time can give us the strength to put that pain in its place and laugh it almost into oblivion.
Humor is indeed tragedy plus time. And laughing, as we Jews will remember during our Purim celebrations, is one of the great strengths of the human spirit.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville. Readers may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org