Have you ever seen Aristocrats? It is a movie that is made up of various comedians telling different versions of the same dirty joke. At the core of the movie was a version of the Aristocrats joke told by Gilbert Gottfried not long after the 9/11 attacks. If there was anything of lasting value form the movie, it was that it asked the question, “Too Soon?” Without ever talking about it explicitly, we all seem to know that the severity of a situation can be measured against the moratorium on talking about it. This humility and silence gives me hope in our basic humanity. But at the same time there is a reality that not talking about issues makes it hard for us to move forward and deal with the causes. Things can just get too heavy. When is too soon to make light of something?
I was thinking about this in regard Vayechi, this week’s Torah portion. After Yakov’s death, Yosef and his brothers carried out their father’s instructions that he be buried in the Land of Israel. On the return trip to Egypt, the brothers were overcome by the fear that now that their father was out of the picture Yosef would seek revenge for their having conspired against him to throw him into the pit. They implored him in the name of their father to spare them:
Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Yosef, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father. And Yosef was in tears as they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:16-17)
After all of the years and despite all of their recent good fortune, neither the brothers nor Yosef could talk about how they failed Yosef so many years earlier. Their lives are filled with fear and everything is heavy. Even with all of the pain, you have to think that one joke would have broken the tension and lifted the whole family. I am not saying that the joke would have made things right, but it would have reminded them that they are still a family and that they can start talking about the pain they have caused each other.
A couple of years ago Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz shared with me a great midrash that speaks to our portion. There we read:
And Yosef’s brothers saw that their father had died. What was it that they saw which caused them fear? On the way back from their father’s burial they saw that Yosef went to recite the blessing at the very pit into which they had cast him. And he recited the blessing which one is obligated to recite at a place where a miracle happened: ‘Blessed are You who performed a miracle for me at this place’. (Midrash Tanhuma Vayehi 17)
In this account, the brothers seemed justified in their fear. Yosef returned to the scene of their crime. Retribution seemed like it was soon to follow. But instead of a joke, the Rabbis help break the tension with a blessing. Yosef has matured. Looking into the pit Yosef sees how far he has come in his life. He no longer sees himself at the center of the universe. Yosef responds:
Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result–the survival of many people. (50:19-20)
And still I want one of the brothers to break the tension with a joke. “Look who thinks he is not God? Mr. Stripe-y Coat himself”. What, too soon? OK, I will have to be happy with Yosef’s saying a blessing. But still I believe that real humor (not ridicule) has unique ability to accelerate healing.