The Power of Humor

Purim is right around the corner. (It starts the evening of March 6.)
With Purim, we read the Book of Esther and celebrate how Esther put her life on the line to rescue the Jewish people from genocide in ancient Persia. The story involves heroes (Esther and Mordecai) and villains (Haman and his collaborators) and a bumbling king (Ahasuerus).
Overall, this is our holiday devoted to having fun, pulling pranks and refusing to take life too seriously. According to tradition, anyone and everyone can be made fun of … and everyone needs to be willing to be made fun of.
Let me share a memory of a time I was criticized for pranking an organization in the Jewish community. This occurred when I was the editor of the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix. My staff and I were inspired by the satirical newspaper/website, The Onion.
For our Purim issue, we made it clear on page one that this was a prank issue in honor of Purim. (We let our readership know NOT to take this news as objective, authentic reporting.)
One of the articles on page one “reported” that donations to the local federation were so numerous and so generous that federation asked the community to stop giving.
As “a hook,” we cited the Torah portion, Vayak’heil. In this portion, Moses asked the people to give raw materials with which to construct the Tabernacle, the traveling sanctuary. In response, the people kept giving and giving and giving. The article then quoted Exodus 36:5-6: “The artisans said to Moses: ‘The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Eternal has commanded to be done.’ Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: ‘Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!’”
After this issue went to press, the blowback was quick and intense. We received a handful of angry and passionate letters to the editor. They condemned us for reporting inaccurately and irresponsibly and demanded corrections, retractions and apologies.
My staff and I were shocked to have been taken seriously. We thought we clearly expressed on page one that the content of that page in honor of Purim was purely satirical. Clearly, some people in the community were not in on the joke.
Looking back, do I wish we had not printed that satirical issue of the Jewish News? Not at all. I thought it was funny, entertaining, an homage to The Onion and a clever way to express a Purim tradition.
As we get ready to celebrate Purim, let us all remember the power of comedy, laughter and satire. Jewish humor is one of our survival mechanisms. By being able to laugh at others, and especially laugh at ourselves, we have been able to navigate tragedies that would have relegated other peoples to museums and history books.
We should not be surprised that some of the greatest comics of all time have been Jewish. To cope, we laugh at authority, we laugh at our enemies and we laugh at ourselves.
Life is serious enough as it is. We all face stresses, strains, pressure, anxieties and fears. Sometimes humor is exactly what we need. Sometimes it needs to be light … sometimes it must be dark.
But the health of a people can best be judged by its sense of humor. In the spirit of Purim, let’s lower our defenses and celebrate our individual and collective sense of humor … even if sometimes we are the brunt of the joke.

Rabbi Barry Cohen is the Jewish community chaplain of the Greater Portland area.


Add Comment