Humor can be dangerous. In Stalinist Russia laughing at a joke the regime deemed inappropriate might trigger loss of a job or worse. Today, in the United States, comedians as famous as Jerry Seinfeld no longer perform on college campuses based on the hate-filled reactions hurled at them. Paradoxically, a sense of humor remains high on the list of traits that people want in potential mates. Humor provides strength to those facing severe trials such as illness or financial stress. What exactly is humor?
Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, which starts this year on the evening of September 25th, is a solemn holyday. Far from the frivolity and drunken revelry of many culture’s New Year’s Eves, Rosh HaShana has another name —The Day of Judgment. It is the day on which God determines each of our fates for the coming year, as well as the fate of nations.
The holyday’s main observance centers around hearing 100 blasts of the shofar, or ram’s horn. The three distinct sounds one hears when a shofar is blown competently, replicate the range of sounds of a person either laughing or crying. As parents who have raced into a child’s room well know, without visual clues it can be almost impossible to distinguish frenzied laughter from hysterical crying.
We can understand why undergoing judgment might be linked to tears, but why is laughter also linked to such a serious theme?
Every holyday has Torah portions designated for public reading on that day. These are not randomly chosen sections of Scripture, but instead serve as signposts to the meaning of the day. On Rosh HaShana, we read Chapters 21 and 22 of Genesis which chronicle the birth and early life of Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah. Even from conception, laughter surrounds his life. In fact, out of the 13 Scriptural references to laughter, nine occur in the context of Isaac’s life. God chose Isaac’s name, in Hebrew Yitzhak, and that name literally means, “he shall laugh.”
Paradoxically, Yitzhak is the Patriarch most closely associated with the idea of judgment and accountability. His essence, just like the holyday of Rosh HaShana, seems to bring together the unlikely bedmates of judgment and laughter.
Laughter is dependent on a deep awareness of the existence of reality, standards, and judgment. In totalitarian societies, laughter is dangerous because the dictator/dictators, such as campus leaders, can declare that what was funny yesterday is serious today and vice-versa. Codes of law change on a whim. Laughter is a holy acknowledgment that there really is a set of inviolable human standards set by God. If there are no unchangeable standards, nothing is funny.
People laugh at almost anything which violates their sense of how things ought to be. A pompous mayor who slips on a banana peel is funny (even if catering to our lowest instincts). A homeless man who falters and sprawls on the sidewalk is just tragic.
We laugh at cartoons of talking animals because of our underlying conviction that only humans were given the gift of speech. Yitzhak’s miraculous birth to a 90-year-old woman and a 100-year-old man is a cause of joyous laughter. Humor is only funny in the context of a fixed framework which it contradicts.
Tears too, are a response to a deviation from the norm. During extended catastrophes, such as plague or war, when death becomes commonplace, people react to it with eerie placidity. An abused child quickly becomes stone-faced rather than tearing up. Tears of grief and even pain are a luxury reserved for when sadness and agony are not the norm.
On Rosh HaShana, the Day of Judgment, we accept that it is not us but God who is the final arbiter of justice. With that recognition we commence the Ten Days of Atonement that culminate on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During this period, we examine our deeds of the past year for instances of failure and straying from God’s path—we recalibrate our spiritual barometer.
Rather than chafing at the restrictions God puts on us, we joyfully confirm the existence of a system of cosmic justice that brings stability and tranquility to our daily lives and whose Kingship, unlike that of human despots, allows us both laughter and tears.
What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this Thought Tools post.
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Day for Atonement: Heavenly Gift of Spiritual Serenity
All human beings say and do wrong or embarrassing things. After a while, the burden of continually disappointing ourselves relentlessly bears down on us. Our self-image withers and it can even seem that invisible forces are sabotaging our success. Without peace of mind and soul, every area of our life suffers.
Using lessons from the Jewish Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur – Rabbi Daniel Lapin provides a guide to facing the mountains of mistakes we all make.