The “snake oil salesman” is another of those characters to whom writers and performers have turned for an endless source of entertainment. Perhaps he is offering a useful product, but more often than not this travelling peddler is a fraud, attempting to sell a strange concoction of secret ingredients he promises will cure every ill known to mankind. While it is amusing to see how easily this trickster can deceive the gullible, it is tragic to consider how quickly honest people can be robbed of their hard-earned wages when they are desperate to ease the suffering of those they love. We see a bit of both in Danny Kaye’s masterful performance in the 1949 comedy, The Inspector General. The film opens with a scene in a Central European village where a troupe of travelling con men stage a show to sell Yakov’s Golden Elixir, a product they claim will not only cure sickness, but even prolong life. Danny Kaye is the star of the show, posing first as the head of an Egyptian prince kept alive for two thousand years by Yakov’s Elixir, and then dancing and singing as a man whose many diseases have disappeared thanks to the magic tonic. Yet the whole time he knows what he is selling is no miracle cure, but instead is a dangerous substance used as furniture polish and cleaning fluid. At the end of the act, when an old woman offers her entire fortune of twelve pennies to buy a bottle for her sick husband, the tender-hearted performer cannot bear to take her money. Others overhear as he tells her the truth, and with that confession the fraud is exposed and the company of thieves chased from the town.
Of course the real product in The Inspector General is Danny Kaye’s comic genius, and the movie continues to a hilarious conclusion. Yet the opening scene leaves one with a question: Could there really be a Yakov’s Elixir that could cure all ills?
Actually, there is such a miraculous cure, and it is even connected with a man named Yakov. In English that man is known as Jacob, the same man to whom God gave the name Israel. When God rescued Jacob’s descendants from slavery in Egypt, He gave them a recipe for success which we would do well to learn:
And He said, “If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the Lord, am your healer.” (Exodus 15:26 NASB)
A Jewish friend once told me that in some Jewish circles the way to celebrate Purim is to drink so much at the party that it becomes difficult to distinguish Esther from Haman. I have not been to such a Purim party, but I do understand (thanks to certain indiscretions in my misspent youth) what it means to forget what happened at a party. It seems to me that God wanted His people to observe the events of Purim, but probably not in that particular way.