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Shabbat Shuvah 5782: A time to cry, a time to laugh

September 11, 2021

An English Jew, a prominent novelist and intellectual, is informed that he will be knighted. The queen’s protocol officials prepare him and other knights-to-be for the ceremony. He is informed that, when he stands before the queen, he is to recite certain Latin words just before being knighted. On the day of the ceremony, the man is very nervous and, sure enough, when he approaches the queen, he forgets the Latin expression. As precious seconds tick by, the only non-English words that he knows pour out of him: “Ma nish-ta-na ha-laila ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot?” The queen, confused, turns to her protocol officer and asks: “Why is this knight different from all other knights?” (Telushkin 191)

According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his 1992 book Jewish Humor, 80% of America’s leading comics up to that point had been Jewish. Thirty years later, Jewish comedy seems to have made its way more openly into the limelight, with TV shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Kominsky Method, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. It should not be surprising, then, that humor is not just a part of cultural Judaism; humor is truly an integral part of our religious tradition. The most popular example I can think of is a story from the Babylonian Talmud, B’rakhot 62a:

It was taught that Rabbi Akiva said, I once entered the bathroom after Rabbi Yehoshua, and I learned three things from observing his behavior: that one should not [do his business] while facing east and west, but rather, north and south; I learned that one should not uncover himself while standing, but rather, while sitting; and I learned that one should not wipe with his right hand, but with his left. Ben Azzai said to him: You were so rude to your teacher that you observed that much?!! Rabbi Akiva replied: “This, too, is Torah, and I must learn it!”

The Talmud continues with a similar story of Rav Kahana sneaking into his teacher’s bedroom and observing him and his wife from under the bed. The story ends with the same line - “This, too, is Torah, and I must learn it!”

Here and elsewhere in the Talmud, the Rabbis use humor as an educational tool. With “This, too, is Torah, and I must learn it,” we are reminded that every single thing we do is an opportunity for learning and growing. And we learn that lesson through laughter. After all, who can forget good bathroom humor? 

We learn, too, from the joke about Ma Nishtanah the translation of a bit of Passover liturgy, and we learn from a popular “kid in its mother’s milk” joke some of the intricacies of the laws of kashrut. If we adults learn best when we enjoy the process, we can use that power of humor in how we teach our children. With catchy songs, delicious family meals, and lots of time for creative play, we give our kids enough of a taste of Jewish learning that they’ll be hooked enough to dive deeper when the learning gets tough.

Beyond the power of humor in education, Jewish humor has acted as a balm throughout our often painful history. Jokes give us an escape, remind us to find the light in every situation, and sometimes, keep us in shape for whatever is to come. In a recent Moment magazine issue, forty comedians and scholars of humor shared their favorite Jewish jokes. More than a few shared jokes spotlighting the Ashkenazi art of kvetching (Yiddish for complaining). One example from cartoonist Bob Mankoff:

A Jewish woman in a hospital says to the doctor that she wants to be transferred. The doctor says, “What is it, the food?” She says, “The food is fine. I can’t kvetch.” “Is it the room?” he says. “No,” she says, “the room is beautiful. I can’t kvetch.” “What about the staff? Is there a problem with the staff?” She says, “no. They’re beautiful people. I can’t kvetch.” “So why do you want to be transferred?” he asks. “I can’t kvetch,” she says.

For Mankoff, “When things are going good, we should think about them as a little bit bad. When things are going badly, we should try to make it a little bit better through jokes…” We kvetch, we joke about kvetching, and we take pride in our kvetching as ways to practice our agency in community and society. Through paying attention to the little things, we can create a world a little more just than the one our ancestors experienced. 

For the Jewish people, a people who has been persecuted throughout millenia, and yet, has survived and often even thrived throughout those millennia, we turn to humor to bring us through the darkness. We even introduce darkness into our humor to remind us to hold onto the blessings we have right now. Among 20th century American Jewry, we created the genre of the Great American Musical, that compelling mix of poignant and hilarious, of jazz and classical, largely because our immigrant composers were not so welcome in the Classical music scene. Our comedians popularized stand-up comedy in the Borscht Belt - the Catskills - largely because we were not allowed to perform at non-Jewish country clubs in our home communities. We made the most of a crummy situation time and time again through our humor, a humor that has never shied away from the self-reflective, the critical, and the dark. And as evidenced from the Sephardi and Israeli humor shared in Moment magazine’s recent issue, such aspects of Jewish humor are not exclusively American or Ashkenazi. When I think about the history of Jewish humor, I think of the glass we break during joyous wedding ceremonies; no moment is fully wonderful, and we must always be thinking about where we can help next. Then, even in those moments that are truly awful, we carry our humor with us to remind us of the laughter that will return in time.

Eit livkot v’eit lishok - there’s a time to cry, and a time to laugh (Ecclesiastes 3:4). We create relationships through laughter, and we bolster those relationships with our presence for one another during times of tears. In teaching, in embracing gratitude, in building relationships, and in finding the good, we turn to jokes, television, books, and movies for inspiration. At every moment we can, I encourage those of us here to find opportunities to laugh heartily. Embrace those friendships that you know carry laughter, and cling to the ridiculous when you look for entertainment. Just like “this, too, is Torah,” almost every moment contains an opportunity for humor, from the news, to the movement of a dog’s ears, to a child’s choice of words, to our own little quirks and mistakes. And so often, the lightness of laughter opens us up to great learning in the process.

One final Jewish joke from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin - a theological kvetch about a pair of pants:

A man brings some very fine material to a tailor and asks him to make a pair of pants. When he comes back a week later, the pants are not ready. Two weeks later, they are still not ready. Finally, after six weeks, the pants are ready. The man trees them on. They fit perfectly. Nonetheless, when it comes time to pay, he can’t resist a jibe at the tailor.

“You know, he says,” it took God only six days to make the world. And it took you six weeks to make just one pair of pants.”

“Ah, the tailor says. “But look at this pair of pants, and look at the world!” (Telushkin 143).

Mon, January 17 2022 15 Shevat 5782