Shabbat Zakhor and Purim 5774: Laugh It Off

Here comes Purim, the better to liven up the book of Leviticus! Our parashah for this week is Tzav, “command”, in the imperative form of the word, no less. And yet Torah comes first; Purim begins at the close of Shabbat, tomorrow.


This Shabbat is called Shabbat Zakhor; it always precedes Purim (this year not by much). It reminds us to forget. And this is only the first of the curious inversions of the Purim holiday period:


1. We are commanded in the special extra Torah reading for this Shabbat to “remember to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Deut.25.19)

2. We are commanded in the regular reading of the parashat hashavua to light a fire an eternal flame: “fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continuously; it shall not go out.” (Lev. 6.6)

3. We are commanded by the mitzvot of the holy day of Purim to laugh at the terrifying story of a powerful tyrant who held a lottery to decide the best day to massacre the Jewish people of his land. We are commanded to laugh, one might say, in fear, or in fury, or in defiance.


Purim invites us to turn our expectations upside down and to take lightly our own most sober conventions; it is more of a surprise to discover the same invitation to inversion coded in the Book of Leviticus, a seemingly mind-numbing recording of the minutiae of priestly sacrificial work. Yet the religious anthropologist Mary Douglas alerts us to just this astonishing fact. Hidden in the literary style of Leviticus is a great work of art: rings upon rings of echoes, parallels upon parallels of concepts and words. Here’s an example just right for this time of year, as we prepare for the great Festival of the Exodus from Egypt:


The Bible is sprinkled with famous puns, and Leviticus is no exception. For example, two distinct verbs are used in the Bible to refer to G-d’s bringing the Israelites out of Egypt: the commonest is literal “to bring out”, the rarer one, only used in Leviticus 11.45, is literally “to bring up“. In Hebrew the same word means “to regurgitate”. In this one rare case the verb for the L-rd’s saving action is the same as that used for “bringing up the cud”, one of the criteria of a clean animal. By this device the whole of chapter 11 is bracketed between the opening law that says the only animals to be used as food are ruminants which bring up the cud and the concluding passage, “I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you up [regurgitated you] from Egypt.” (Mary Douglas, Leviticus As Literature: 49)


Laughter is a curious thing. Aristotle posited that when a baby laughed for the first time, it became a human being, with a human soul. Something about laughter lifts us up above the animal kingdom, perhaps – and certainly lifts us out of victimization. Laughter fits us Jews very well, after all – we perfected the art of laughing through tears in modern comedy, even as we suffered persecution and discrimination. On this Shabbat and, upon its heels, Purim, let’s take the message to heart: some things, like Amalek, are best forgotten in laughter. Some things, like keeping an eternal fire – or any other important purpose – burning, can’t be taken too seriously if we are to succeed.

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