My favorite film from this recent season is Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth – a gorgeous and dark movie about friendship, mortality, and art. In one scene, an actor (played by Paul Dano) is speaking to a famous retired conductor/composer (played by Michael Caine). Each of them at different points in their career did a lighter, more commercially friendly project that they are now remembered for, instead of for all their critically acclaimed less-popular offerings. Dano says, “We’ve been misunderstood our whole lives because we allowed ourselves to give in just once to a little levity.” Caine responds, in a way that sounds like he is defending levity – “Levity is an irresistible temptation.” Dano goes on with his argument, lamenting that it kills him that he will always be remembered as a robot named Mr. Q, even though he has worked with all the great directors of his day. Caine responds this time, “Levity is also a perversion.”
Which is it? On one hand, levity is – at worst – a healthy distraction, and at best, a healthy philosophy and way to live life. On the other hand, living a life of levity can reflect in a negative sense, implying that we never took life seriously.
In our Mussar work, we have been studying a text by Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto, called Mesillat Yesharim (“The Path of the Just.”). One recent chapter warns of the dangers of levity, which at first read, was a little unsettling to our ears. Many of us initially argued, but aren’t laughter and humor not only good things, but also necessary ones? Rabbi Ira Stone explains in his commentary to the text, that it is not laughter or good humor that Rabbi Luzzatto is talking about here, but scoffing, sarcasm, the tendency we have to practice humor at the expense of others. We could take it further and say that the text is not speaking about humor at all, but a deep and ingrained pattern of cynicism that keeps us defensive, distrustful and distant from others.
The levity that Adar celebrates is more iconoclastic. It says, take all of the idols in your life – including yourself – less seriously. This kind of levity will actually help us become less cynical, more open to possibility, and more engaged with life.