Mi Sh’nichnas Adar, Marbim b’simchah- With the advent of Adar we increase joy in preparation for Purim. Each of us find different ways to bring joy. Here I want to explore Schadenfreude one distinct genre of humor. Why is the pain of other people such a rich source of laughter for so many of us?
I think that Megillat Esther might provide us some interesting insights into this question. The whole story seems to get started when Achashverosh asks his queen Vashti to come his banquet in her crown. When she rejects him he is angry and turns to his inner court for counsel. There we read:
And Memucan answered before the king and the princes: ‘Vashti the queen has not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples, that are in all the provinces of the king Achashverosh. For this deed of the queen will come abroad to all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it will be said: The king Achashverosh commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the queen say the like to all the king’s princes. So will there arise enough contempt and wrath. If it please the king, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before king Achashverosh, and that the king give her royal estate to another that is better than she. And when the king’s decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his kingdom, great though it be, all the wives will give to their husbands honor, both to great and small.’ ( Esther 1: 16-20)
So just like that, by royal decree, the queen was out, women needed to listen to their husbands, and honor was restored to the men.
Later on in the story we meet Haman the kings lead counsel. Haman has ascended to be all-powerful, he has been given permission to kill the Jews, and he recently was invited to a very exclusive party with the king and Esther the new queen. And despite all of this he is unhappy because Mordecai sits at the kings gate and will not bow to him. There we read:
Then Zeresh his wife and all his friends said to him: ‘Let a gallows be made of fifty cubits high, and in the morning you should speak to the king that Mordecai may be hanged on it; then you can go in merrily with the king in to the banquet.’ And the thing pleased Haman; and he caused the gallows to be made. ( Esther 5:14)
The story continues that Haman follows his wife’s advise and goes to see the king where he is met with an interesting question. “What shall be done to the ma n whom the king delights to honor?”( Esther 6:6) Assuming the king was talking about himself he suggests that the king bring out the royal apparel so that the person being honored can ride around the streets on the king’s horse wearing the king’s crown and being led by the kings most noble prince announcing that this is how the king honors people. Then the king said to Haman:
‘Make haste, and take the apparel and the horse, as you have said, and do even so to Mordecai the Jew, that sits at the king’s gate; let nothing fail of all that you hast spoken.’ Then took Haman the apparel and the horse, and arrayed Mordecai, and caused him to ride through the street of the city, and proclaimed before him: ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.’( Esther 6:10-11)
It is noteworthy that while Mordecai is honored to be led around by his nemesis Haman he does not get to wear the king’s crown. Why is this the case? The king could not sleep at night so he read the chronicles where he saw that he had not appropriately honored Mordecai for saving his life. And why was the king awake? Well I think it might be because some Jackass listened to his wife and kept him up all night building a gallows. On a number of levels Haman is hoisted by his own petard .
So, if you are anything like me you ask, what does it mean to be hoisted by a petard ? The petard, a rather primitive and exceedingly dangerous explosive device, consisted of a brass or iron bell-shaped device filled with gunpowder. This was attached to a wall or gate using hooks and rings, the fuse lit and, if successful, the resulting explosive force, concentrated at the target point, would blow a hole in the obstruction, allowing assault troops to enter. So this phrase means “to be harmed by one’s own plan to harm someone else” or “to fall into one’s own trap.” So on one level Haman wanted to have the king honor him and in the end had to honor Mordecai in that same way. On another level the gallows on which he hoped to kill Mordecai was the reason the king was awake. In the end it was means by which Haman and his family were killed. So that plan really blew up on him. And on yet another level we see that the whole story was set into motion to preserve men’s honor and ensure that their wives would listen to them. Haman is killed because he listened to Zeresh and Achashverosh listened to Esther.
So going back to the question of Schadenfreude. There is nothing noble about laughing at someone’s pain, but is seems justified when the one in pain is being hoisted by his own petard. Hell I am honored to do it. Have a very joyous Adar.