Joy, fun, and laughter enrich our lives. They belong in our houses of worship.
On March 16, the Jewish world celebrated Purim. The festival derives from the Book of Esther, a description of a triumph of the Jewish people over a villain and a regime who sought its destruction. To celebrate the victory, we dress up in masks and costumes, put on silly skits, drink, play games, and go a bit mad. It’s good fun.
Purim reminds us that fun is good. We too often carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. We worry about the rent, the kids and the future. We stress about our jobs, and we stress about losing them. We work hard to make ends meet, and some of us don’t manage. Life today is difficult. We get worn down by the daily grind. We need fun to lift our spirits and make life worth living.
Many believe that our synagogues and churches ought to be solemn places. They hold that the lofty pursuits of self-awareness and repentance are enhanced by quiet and solemnity. For them, decorum is paramount, and children should be seen and not heard. Some deride “happy clappy” worship, as if joy and music got in the way of feeling God’s presence.
Like those people, I seek a place where the serious themes of life are explored and where I can pray without distraction. At the same time, I crave laughter. Laughter heals many ills, lifts our spirits, and bonds people to each other. Joy helps us feel better about ourselves, see new opportunities, and make good choices. Laughter doesn’t eliminate life’s pain, but it does lessen it for a few precious moments.
Laughter should be welcome in our worship. When I lead prayer, I allow myself to laugh when the mood strikes. I sometimes crack jokes. Indeed, I believe that laughter and joy unclog the detritus of the mundane from our soul. They free us and refresh us, and remind us that life is juicy, fun and delightful. They restore our souls. At Temple Emanuel of Tempe, we celebrate a monthly “Rock Shabbat” where the music is upbeat and the mood free. People sing and clap along. I love to move my body during prayer, swaying as some Orthodox Jews do. The movement encourages God’s energy to flow through me, and helps me remain supple.
On Purim, laughter rings out from synagogues worldwide. The plays we put on are silly and ribald; the costumes outlandish. The masks we wear surprise, amaze and dazzle.
Masks cloak our identity and our feelings. When we wear a mask, we are simultaneously seen and hidden. Masks can reveal more than they conceal. So, too, they can transform: an unhappy person wearing a silly mask may become silly herself as she taps into her inner goofball and observes the responses she provokes.
In the same way, when we come to our houses of worship, even when we are out of sorts, the music soaks into our spirits, and the laughter buoys us. We might find ourselves tapping our toes. We might grin to witness another person’s celebration. Our mood might lift and we might become genuinely happy, if only for a little while. Just as when we wear masks, the inner self can transform to match the mood of the exterior. (Sometimes, it must be noted, the opposite happens: other people’s joy can make us feel more isolated).
When I was child, I heard the passage from Ecclesiastes: “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven.” I didn’t understand why we should ever tear down or slay. Now that I am an adult, I understand that life unfailingly brings challenge and pain. Since synagogue is a place where we can bring our whole selves, we can certainly bring our grief and disappointment. But life also presents us with joy and hope. We serve no higher purpose by banishing delight. Quite the opposite.
After all, even God giggles, as Psalms 2 teaches: “The One who is enthroned in heaven laughs...”
• Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe. Contact him at email@example.com and visit his ‘Rabbi Dean Shapiro’ page on Facebook.