I agreed to participate in this year's carnival by helping with a game in which kids throw shaving cream pies at Haman. And, yes, my job was to be Haman. There's a video clip above to attest to the indignity of it all.
(By the way, I was joking about "fifty bucks a throw." It was actually three dollars. This booth raised about $120 for our youth group. Not bad.)
I know that there were at least a few parents watching today who wondered, "Is it right that our rabbi should be doing this? What does it teach our kids that they can throw shaving cream pies at the rabbi—even in the spirit of Purim merriment?" Well, I have to admit that I thought about that, too.
There actually is a discussion in traditional Jewish law about this question. Are there activities that should be considered beneath the dignity of a rabbi?
The proof text that generally is used in this discussion comes from the book of Samuel. When King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to the City of David, there was a boisterous celebration with dancing, shouting, music and shofar blasts (II Samuel 6). When David's wife, Michal, saw her husband "leaping and whirling," she despised him for it. Michal was born a princess, the daughter of King Saul. She felt that to behave as David did was beneath the dignity of the successor to her father's throne.
When David came home, Michal gave him what for. She spoke sarcastically to him: "How well did the King of Israel honor himself today by exposing himself to the eyes of his subjects' slave girls in the way that one of the riffraff might expose himself!" (II Samuel 6:20).
David answered by telling Michal that he danced with the Ark in order to serve God. "I will dance before Adonai and dishonor myself even more and I shall bring myself low in my own eyes; but among the slave girls of whom you speak, I shall be honored" (II Samuel 6:21-22).
The Bible clearly has a negative view of Michal's reproach. It states that because of this incident she never gave birth. David, on the other hand, is viewed positively for his willingness to subvert his own dignity for the sake of honoring God. David knew that by lowering himself before God, he actually lifted up the way he was perceived. From this, Jewish legal scholars conclude that the dignity of a leader, such as a rabbi, is not compromised when his or her actions are seen as the fulfillment of God's commandments (See, for example, Bei'ur Halachah, Siman 250).
Now, I don't bring this up in order to say that I was as righteous as Kind David, or to suggest that I acted today to raise my prestige in the eyes of our congregation. The point I want to make is a more global statement about Judaism, rabbis, dignity and joy.
I want Jewish children to know that Judaism wants us to experience the leaping joy of the human heart. I think a rabbi can sacrifice a bit of his or her dignity if it helps to show children (and the child in all of us) that Judaism is more interested in celebrating God with ecstatic joy than it is in the solemn dignity of human beings.
Rabbis (including myself) can be a pretty stuck-up bunch. We display ourselves as spiritual exemplars and we believe that our behavior sets the standard for the community. We are mindful that the way we are perceived shapes the way that the Jewish people as a whole are perceived. I believe that all of this is right. Rabbis should live in awe of the responsibility to act accordingly.
Yet, there also is a need to lighten up a bit. If awe and dignity are all that people see in rabbis, they will assume that this is all there is to Judaism. We owe them so much more. A rabbi also has to be an exemplar of life lived with joy. What better opportunity is there for doing that than Purim?
Celebrate God by living outrageously, proudly and joyfully. Live with dignity, yes, but never forget that the purpose of dignity is not to aggrandize ourselves. Dignity is a good thing only to the extent that it helps us remember that our lives matter. We live every moment in the presence of an awesome God.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Counting from Freedom to Covenant: Nobility