Friday, March 25, 2005

Tragedy and Comedy

As my wife designed the label for our Shalach Manot baskets, she decided to put the Comedy and Tragedy masks on them as a graphic. Seeing that Purim is one of the happiest days on the Jewish calendar, the Comedy mask seemed very fitting, but I initially had my doubts about the Tragedy mask. How is Purim a tragic event? Sure, it was almost tragic, but the tragedy was avoided? But after hearing the megillah both last night and this morning, and after putting Purim into perspective with some recent events, I decided that the tragedy mask was not so out of place after all. But please don't consider me a naysayer, and hear me out as I explain why.

One of the gifts that my older son, Mitch, received for his 3rd birthday was a Pushke or charity box. We quickly realized that this gift was a great way to teach him the concept of charity. While the concept of charity in general is a bit difficult to explain to a three-year-old, the notion of giving charity on behalf of the ill or despondent has seemed to stick. Each night before bedtime, we give Mitch a couple of coins to put into his Pushke. Sometimes he will put it straight in, and other ocassions he will recite the names of friends and family members who we want to get better. Good or bad, this underscores the notion of giving to charity on behalf of the sick to add to their merits and return them to good health. One of the people who we mention by name is Plonit (not her real name, lest I draw the ire of my wife). Plonit is going to be three in June, but is battling leukemia. Mitch has only met her once, as she lives a bit far away, but he knows of her, as he knows of his many other occasional friends that happen to be the children of Mommy or Daddy's friends.

There hasn't been a week gone by since she's been diagnosed that the Mrs. and I thank G-d for the common colds and ear infections that our kids have. I will take 1000 runny noses over an ounce of the other diseases any day. Last night, after putting a coin in his Pushke for Plonit to get better, Mitch asked me -'Daddy, why is Plonit sick?' For the first time in my life, but definitely not the last, my son had asked me a question that I couldn't answer - not just with an explanation for him, but with an understanding for myself. I wish I could have said to him - 'Daddy wants to know too' - but I just let it go.

In the same vein, there were two more tragedies going on in the news this week - one local, and one national. The local tragedy happened just across the Hudson River from us in Teaneck, NJ. A Jewish woman, a single mother no less, lost four of her seven children in a house fire. She herself remains in critical condition. In addition to having had some business dealings with her ourselves (we used her nanny placement agency) several of my wife's friends in the area knew her well, as their children were classmates. It is a hard enough pill to swallow when small children are killed in terror attacks, violent crimes, or genocide. Yet in those cases, part of the rationale is that they were killed by 'Bad People'. How does this type of tragedy translate? One of our friends' 5-year-old son came home and said to his mom - 'Mommy, Noah was killed in a fire - why did G-d create fire if it was so bad?' This tragedy marred an traditionally happy week in the Jewish community as many parents struggle to explain the deaths of children to their own children even though their own questions about it remain unanswered.

The national tragedy is that of Terri Schiavo. It seems that everyone has a side in the story or an angle to it. It seems that every last politician is milking poor miss Schiavo's situation for his or her own media gains. I do not want to weigh in on the matter just to say that for a woman who has survived for years after a serious brain injury, starving her to death seems to be an unusually cruel way for her to go.

But I digress, how does this all tie back to Purim? Or the combination of Tragedy and Comedy contained therein? To get the answer my friends, we literally need to read the 'Whole Megillah' (pun very much intended, after all, it is Purim :) ).

The story of the megillah plays out like a soap opera, or even a Seinfeldian-style sitcom - a bunch of unrelated stories - the death of Queen, the selection of a nice Jewish girl as queen, the foiling of a murder plot, the rise to power of an evil adviser to the king, and his rivalry with the leader of the Jewish Nation. They all seem unrelated at first, but then in the later chapters it all comes together. I have always found it interesting that Mordechai and Esther - two very strong Jewish figures - question apparent coincidences - 'How do we know that this is not the reason that you were appointed queen?' ask Mordechai of Esther as she debates going unnannounced to the King. He informs her that if she fails, success and salvation of the Jews will come from another source. Yes, we all know how the Megillah ends, but is it just me who finds this interesting that (at least literally) Mordechai and Esther have their doubts as to the outcome?

I also find it interesting that while most of the Megillah is read with an upbeat tune, there are certain parts that are read (much like a Hollywood score) with the wailing tune of Eichah (Lamentations). These small contrasts in the Megillah send a sharp message - While it seems that we are all generally happy, we cannot ignore the plight of those suffering amongst us. This is, in part, why the mitzvot of the day include the giving of gifts to our friends, as well as the giving of charity to the poor (which must be distributed on that day!) Moreover, it only underscores that hindsight is 20/20. We can laugh at the Megillah now because we know how it ends, but the people of Shushan didn't.

Maybe we should look at the deceased members of the family in Jersey, Plonit's leukemia, and even Terri Schiavo's condition as incomplete manuscripts so to speak. Sure the events are currently tragic, and we don't understand their meaning or place in G-d's greater plan - but we can all hope for a happy ending for each of them, and then, in hindsight it will all come together.

Chag Sameach and a Freilichen Purim!

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