Purim Ponderings: Incongruity and the Jews

The Maharal of Prague remarks that the “stiff-necked” nature of the Jewish people actually stems from our closeness to Hashem, from our Godliness.

How so?

G-d is the ultimate perfect, unchanging being.  He was never born, will never die….

The human quality of flexibility and versatility, however praiseworthy and useful, may bespeak a lack of principle and standards.  Stubbornness, on the other hand, stems from a person’s commitment to an issue, often to a  principle, a value.

Along the same lines, three years ago Miriam and I had the good fortune of spending Shabbat in London, England. We davened at Rav Kimchi’s shul.

In his weekly drasha, the rabbi discussed Moshe Rabeinu’s demand that Hashem forgive the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf.   Moshe’s reasoning?  They are a stiff-necked people.

Rather odd, noted Rabbi Kimchi, that Moshe would point this out as a reason to spare the nation! What could Moshe have possibly meant?

Rav Kimchi answered: Their stiff-necked quality is the negative side of the positive qualities inherent in them: unswerving dedication and commitment to principle.  This midda is the perfect starting point for a permanent relationship with G-d.

In a similar and Purim-related vein, I’ve always been amazed at the Jewish people’s sense of humor.  Is the disproportionate amount of Jewish comedians in America – mere coincidence?

Though nowadays, I rarely see anything more than a Pixar film with the kids, I recall a scene from Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety”.  In it, Brooks’ character is attacked in the shower, echoing a famous scene in a Hitchcock film.

In a review of that film, Michael K. Beusch notes:

“Director Barry Levinson plays a psychotic bellboy who is pushed over the edge by Brooks’ repeated requests for a newspaper. He bursts into Brooks’ hotel bathroom and “stabs” him with the newspaper. Brooks duplicates every angle and visual detail of the original, right down to Janet Leigh’s fuzzy bathroom slippers. He uses ink from the newspaper to simulate the blood swirling down the drain in Psycho. It’s an obvious target, but Brooks presents the scene with such care and such genuine affection for the original that it work beautifully as both satire and an homage.”

Ohr Sameach recently published an article about Purim and Humor.  It asks why Jewish custom developed the Purim Shpiel.  To explain the article’s answer, I would add to Mr. Beusch’s comments that the humor of the “shower scene” derives from the incongruity between the apparent threat to the “victim’s” life and the reality – i.e.: that he’s only been “stabbed” by a newspaper!  We expected a violent murder and we received a “newspaper stabbing”!

The story of the Megillah focuses on incongruity, as well.  Just when we thought that Haman would succeed in annihilating the Jewish people, the tables turn, Mordechai’s importance skyrockets – and the powerful Haman is eliminated.  As the Ohr Sameach article notes, the “nahafoch” (turnaround) of the story is the starting point for Purim humor.

As a G-d-centered people, we understand that our expectations will often not be met by the realities with which life presents us; the famous expression “Mentschen Tracht and Gott Lacht” (“Man thinks and G-d Laughs”) certainly captures the perspective of the believing Jew.

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