The Holiness of Humor
by David Sacks
It’s said that science describes the process through which something comes into being, but Torah describes why that thing exists. Put another way, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says that science describes the outside of a phenomenon whereas Torah describes the inside. What then does the Torah say about Laughter?
The Talmud (Shabbos 30b) records that the great Sage, Rabbah, always began his lectures with a humorous statement. This uplifted the students. According to the Baal Shem Tov, humor is that thing that ushers a person’s mind from a place of constricted consciousness to a place of expanded consciousness. A person in a place of expanded consciousness sees the totality of creation before him. He sees G-d’s presence and goodness acting upon everything. And he realizes that anything and everything that happens is an expression of Hashem’s love for us whether we can understand it in the moment or not. Constricted consciousness is, of course, the opposite.-the understandable impulse to take things too literally, believing that they are not a part of something greater. And so the greatness of humor is in its awesome ability to lift one out of depression into a place where the unseen – G-d’s constant love and goodness-becomes palpable and real.
Humor and Laughter, while great in themselves, are actually subsets of a larger topic – Joy! One of the surprising things I learned when I started studying Torah was the central focus our religion puts on happiness. As Rebbe Nachman once put it, people are sad because nothing is going right for them – but what they don’t realize is nothing is going right for them because they’re sad! On the verse, “For you shall go out with joy” (Isaiah 55:12), the Kotzker Rebbe explains, “the beauty of joy is that it has the power to extricate man from all troubles.” Joy means being in touch with the bigger picture, or as we said earlier, being in a state of expanded consciousness. The Hassidic Revolution that took place in Jewish thought properly restored Joy to the forefront of Jewish values. This is actually very important to understand. So many of us think that Torah is essentially an intellectual discipline, but there is a vital emotional component as well.
From a comedy perspective, the surest way to get a laugh is by juxtaposing the expected with the unexpected. Thus, when we’re convinced that the world is one way and the opposite happens – something that puts us in touch with how great and marvelous the world really is — the result is laughter!
If humor is the vehicle that transports us from a place of constricted consciousness to a place of expanded consciousness, then laughter is our reaction to that dizzying process.
With this in mind, one of the perplexing things in the Torah is the fact that our holy father Yitzhak, who represents the spiritual attribute of gevurah or strength, is Hebrew for the word “laughter” you might ask what does gevurah/strength has to do with laughter since they seem like total opposites. The reconciliation of these polar opposites is very deep. Sarah was a motherless woman of ninety. What is the last thing such a woman would expect to have? A baby! And what is it that our holy mother Sarah has? A baby! Laughter itself! Thus, Yitzhak becomes the embodiment of the unexpected. That’s the explanation from the comedy standpoint. On a deeper level, Yitzhak comes to represent the ultimate strength it takes to not let go of your dreams. As such, he becomes the spiritual repository of Avraham and Sarah’s most intractable desires. And this is gevurah or strength itself.
Psalm 126 says that in the Messianic era, “our mouths will be filled with laughter.” Why? Because laughter in its highest and holiest expression is our reaction to the realization that the world is so much bigger, deeper and more beautiful than we ever gave it credit for. When we realize this, our only response will be to laugh.
The laughter Yitzhak represents is the happy ending that awaits us all — the Messianic Era which Hashem in His goodness has promised us. The Kabbalists say that when this day comes, let it be soon, G-d will grant us the eyes to see that we never left the Garden of Eden at all.
Until then, the question is, how much do we believe in G-d’s goodness? If we know He’s good, then we can never give up hoping that a change for the better is just around the corner no matter how grim the circumstances. In Psalm 121 it says, “I raise my eyes to the mountains. From where (m’ayin) will my help come?” Fascinatingly, the Vilna Gaon understands the word m’ayin to mean “from nothing.” The line now reads, “I raise my eyes to the mountains – from nothing will my help come!” In other words, G-d’ssalvation can arrive from anywhere in an instant.
Once we understand this secret, we’re in on the ultimate joke. That it’s all good and it always was.