Dear Friends – I wrote this sermon for the Passover Morning at Sinai several years ago. The words and ideas have remained with me ever since. The sermon links Passover to Purim and a much larger vision of Judaism as a whole. I remain very committed to the vision of this sermon. It’s obviously too long to be used at a Seder, but hopefully the thoughts here can inform your understanding of being a Jew. Shalom, Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro
Yesterday – after
I had reviewed the Haggadah – I reread the Book of Esther!
This was not because I had nothing else to do. This was not because I miss Purim so much that I couldn’t quite let go.
No, I went back to Esther because there is something about the Book of Esther that has great meaning for us today on Passover.
Yes, Esther the book of Purim.
Yes, Esther that book on which we base so much silliness and so much laughter.
Yes, Esther teaches something important about Passover and Judaism in general.
You’ll catch my drift if you let me take you back one month to Purim when we read the Book of Esther and encountered that fabulous character – King Achashverosh. He’s the first person we meet in the book. We meet him in a ludicrous setting. He is the ruler of the massive Persian Empire stretching from India to the Mediterranean Sea. He is drunk. He is showing off to his many courtiers. He calls Queen Vashti, to come parade in front of the assembly, and, when she refuses, he consults not one but seven different advisors. Their legendary advice is to dismiss Vashti and find a new queen.
Achashverosh does as he is told and so begins the story of Esther who will become his queen.
Along the way, Haman will of course threaten to exterminate the Jews, but before we get too worried, let’s consider how the Book of Esther presents that dastardly, villainous plot.
The truth is that Haman’s plot unfolds in the middle of a ridiculous narrative.
It certainly is terrifying. Jews have known too many Hamans for us not to be on guard. This Haman even gets his way with almost no effort. A few words to the king, and Haman is given permission to do whatever he wants with the Jews.
But think again. Haman gets his way because the king in the Book of Esther isn’t a serious character.
The same Achashverosh who can’t figure out what to do with his contrary wife agrees to kill the Jews because he barely pays attention. Achashverosh is silly. He’s a buffoon. Later in the book, when he wants to honor Mordecai the Jew, he doesn’t even realize how unbearable it will be for Haman to do the honoring. Achashverosh doesn’t even realize his own wife (who is related to Mordecai the Jew!) is a Jew.
How can that be – unless the Book of Esther is meant to be a joke all the way through. In fact, by the end of it all, everything is reversed. Esther holds a banquet. The king has a delightful meal and probably gets himself drunk again. Then he changes his mind again.
Up becomes down – Haman is revealed as villain and discarded. Down becomes up – Mordecai takes Haman’s place as Prime Minister.
The evil decree against the Jews is averted as quickly and easily as the evil decree was first begun.
From mourning to joy, from danger to safety, it all takes place at the drop of a hat.
Do you know what kind of a book Esther is?
Think – all’s well that ends well – and you’re right. The Book of Esther is a comedy. Not the ha-ha, funny kind. Not the stand-up laughter kind. Esther is a comedy in the most serious sense of the term. It’s a comic book insofar as its story line (however perilous it may seem to be) resolves itself positively.
All’s well that ends well.
And that connects us to Passover because, come to think of it, Passover has the same comic component.
Passover too is a comedy.
It’s a darker story.
Pharaoh is a far more serious figure than Achashverosh. Pharaoh is, in fact, deadly serious. He doesn’t act on a whim the way Achashverosh does. Pharaoh rather sustains his campaign against our ancestors over time. More than that, when he is first challenged by Moses, Pharaoh cleverly adapts his program and demands that the Hebrew slaves gather their own straw in addition to making bricks. Pharaoh is absolutely in control. It takes all of Moses’ determination and God’s intervention to win the day against Egypt.
But my point is that the unlikely does take place.
Up does become down – Pharaoh and his entire army are vanquished. Down becomes up – When the waters of the Sea of Reeds close, Moses stands tall with our ancestors in freedom.
In other words, we have a comic ending!
All’s well that ends well.
Or as the Haggadah puts it…
We have traveled from slavery to freedom, from degradation to celebration, from the rule of evil to the rule of God!
This is, my friends, a comic vision of history!
It’s not Jack Benny; it’s not the Marx Brothers; it’s not Jerry Seinfeld or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
You don’t laugh when you encounter Passover’s comedy because this is comedy in the broadest sense of the word. It’s a telling of the human story where there is hope in the end. Moses isn’t Hamlet, Othello, or Oedipus. Our Jewish story isn’t a tragedy that implodes in on itself. Our story is instead a vision that promises something better can always happen.
Seriously speaking, our myth tells us that we’re heading for the Promised Land. And that is a kind of comic premise.
I think it’s what Elie Wiesel must have meant when he said as follows: “What, then, are we humans? Hope turned to dust. But the opposite is equally true. What are we humans? Dust turned to hope.”
True, there is much sadness in our Jewish experience and the overall human experience. That is why you can’t have a Seder without salt water and maror. But you also can’t have a Seder without sweet charoset and freedom bread matza, without four cups of wine, and without the ultimate punch line – L’shana ha-ba-a b’Yerushalayim.
What do I like about being a Jew and about Judaism?
Although I never would have put in these terms until I saw it at Purim, I am moved and inspired in my life by Judaism’s comic vision.
Judaism is hope-full.
Judaism is faith-full.
Judaism is wholesome.
Judaism is positive.
I don’t necessarily laugh when I’m doing Jewish things, but I do smile and I do feel confident and stronger with Judaism because that’s what it’s all about: the belief that life has an up side, the conviction that dust can always turn to hope.
A final thought – a punch line if you will.
Last Tuesday afternoon, when I was doing a model seder with our Fifth/Sixth Graders, we chanted the kiddush together and as we were about to drink our grape juice, one of the kids proclaimed – Cheers!
At that very moment, I gently stopped the students and suggested that there was a better way for Jews to approach a celebration.
Bitter as our experience can sometimes be,
Frustrating as our experience can often be,
I suggested to the children that Judaism still insists on the best punch line I know. When the day is done and the blessing is said and all the stories are told, we hold the glass high and insist –
L’chaim – To life.
But that’s also our way of saying YES to yesterday, today, and tomorrow.