Posts Tagged 'Humor'

A Laughing Nation: The Secret of Our Immortality

My son Yadid is in Israel for a gap year after High School. As part of Year Course, the program he is on, they will be traveling to Poland in a couple of weeks. In preparing him for this trip I shared with him a longer version of one of my favorite jokes. The joke goes:

An old Jew man dies and goes to Heaven. He asks if God wants to hear a Holocaust joke. God agrees and the man tells the joke. God says, “That wasn’t funny. It was offensive.” The Jew pauses and replies “I guess you had to be there.”

The profound nature of this joke is not just a challenge of theodicy, it is also an expression of our deep sense of group. We, the Jewish people are in the “in-group” and God is on the outside. What is it about our people? We make it normal to take the feeling of pain and transform it into humor if not actual joy.

I often think about this when I see a non-Jew experience a traditional Jewish wedding for the first time. More often than not, they are just blown away by the depth and layers of joy at the event. In response I point out the breaking of the glass. Everyone knows this is the sound of Jewish wedding, but few know the source.

Our breaking of the glass is meant as a fulfilment of the verse, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten; let my tongue stick to my palate if I do not mention you, if I do not raise Jerusalem above my highest joy” (Tehillim 137:5-6). So a wedding is one of those moments of “highest joy”, but we did not always live up to this idea. The Talmud relates that Mar, the son of Ravina, made a wedding for his son. When he saw that the rabbis “were becoming too joyful,” he took “a valuable cup worth four hundred zuz and broke it before them, and they became sad.” To demonstrate that this was not a silly idea, the Gemara immediately follows by telling us that “Rav Ashi made a wedding for his son and saw the Sages, were excessively joyous. He brought a cup of white glass and broke it before them, and they became sad”. (Brachot 30b-31a) The breaking of the glass is a reminder to keep the destuction of Jerusalem above this moment of “highest joy”.

Much harm and pain has befallen our people since we lost Jerusalem. We measure that collective pain out measure for measure with our collective joy. We take this moment to cry for the 6 million and they join us in dancing at our weddings. What a big wedding party? Now that is highest joy.

The speaks to the joy, but what about our sense of humor? I was thinking about this when reading Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. It is interesting in that much of the story allows us to focus on the perspective of Avraham, but what about Sarah?

Sarah left their home for a Promised Land only to find a famine. They carry on to Egypt where she is pimped out to Pharaoh. They finally leave heading back to Canaan. But this time Avraham has a handmaid. And insult to injury Hagar give her husband a son. At this point she is an old woman. Her years of giving birth to a child are long past and they are told that she will give birth to a son. This seems so absurd- it can only be understood as a cruel joke. There we read:

And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her. Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?”

Genesis 17:15-17

They do not get angry, alas they laugh. And just like that Yitzhak gets his name from laughter. “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Yitzhak, and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come.” ( Genesis 17:19) Alas the first person born of two Jewish parents was born from pain, suffering, and shame, but was known for laughter.

Now that is Jewish. It makes your think that our “everlasting covenant” itself is connected to our collective sense of humor. This reminds me of that famous quote by Mark Twain on the Jewish people. He wrote:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

Mark Twain ,September 1897

Our history is a sad and absurd. Looking back one could only choose to laugh or cry. The secret of our immortality is our choice to laugh again and again. We find humor in pain and transform it into joy. With each joke we reknit our experience of peoplehood. Together share the weight of sadness and glee of real joy. If you do not get it, well… You had to be there.

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Hoist By His Own Petard

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.

 

 

What, Too Soon?

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.


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