April Fools’, Purim and the Balance of Humor and Seriousness

Judaism is masterful at balancing the playful and the serious, and so much of life is about that balance as well.

Today is April Fools’ Day, and last week was Purim. Taken together, it seems spring is a funny time.

Of course, it’s not all or nothing. Even within April Fools’ Day, a holiday of pranks, there is a line when the funny isn’t funny and becomes rather serious. And while Purim is a holiday of dressing up, getting drunk, and being playful, we also know that the end of the Purim story is quite intense: the Jews go out and massacre their enemies.

Judaism is masterful at balancing the playful and the serious, and so much of life is about that balance as well.

While there is a history of associating Yom Kippur and Purim as days like each other in certain ways, for most of us these holidays are quite different. Yom Kippur is most often about solemnity and seriousness. Purim is most often about playfulness and laughter. Some holidays, like Passover, have playfulness and seriousness both central. What could be funnier than a bunch of frogs jumping around to plague a people and what could be more serious than the death of the first born?

Even ancient Jewish texts balance the serious and the humorous. The biblical authors had a very important task. They created a document that would help the Jewish people maintain their identity and sense of community; in many places, it outlines structure and laws and tells weighty stories. Yet, laughter is in the Hebrew Bible as well. There are puns in the Tower of Babel story in Genesis and in the Joseph story in Exodus. There are trickster motifs in Laban’s switching the woman who would marry Jacob from one sister to another as well as in Jacob’s sneaky pursuit of his brother’s birthright. Sarah laughed so hard upon hearing that she would have a child at age 90 that she chose to name him Isaac, based on the Hebrew word for laughter. And there are parts of the Book of Judges that are simply laugh-out-loud funny.

Rabbinic texts are both serious and funny as well. They deal with complex legal and communal issues with great precision and thoughtfulness. And yet, at times, there are unique word plays, farcical animal fables, and various forms of ideological comedy. The rabbis permitted raucous Purim celebrations, wedding jesters (who were sometimes irreverent!), and jovial stories.

Judaism is about balancing the playful and the serious. Life is about balancing them as well. We all have times when play and levity just don’t feel right, times when we need to be serious and solemn, thoughtful and intentional. And at other times, we crave and embrace the humor and levity.

Today, watch out for the fools’ pranks. And tomorrow, let’s return to our regular balancing act of the serious and the playful.

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