What’s so Funny?
Why do you Jews always answer a question with another question?
I remember the joke, I remember the comedian, and I remember the thought I had then as a teenager in the 1980’s: Why is the humor field flooded with Jewish talent? The niggling question embedded itself into my growing repertoire of questions.
Then I heard about a lecture on the topic of Judaism and humor and went, hoping to hear some insights. The speaker suggested that humor became a survival tactic of sorts; that through all the times of Jewish suffering, it was laughter and seeing the humor in life that helped keep us going. Okay, maybe– but it seemed like a big stretch.
Furthermore, a Rav I had recently begun discussions on Judaism with, Rabbi Mordechai Swiatycki, pointed out that in many other cultures, people that have been persecuted, marginalized or ghettoized ended up turning to the bottle or violence and did not emerge with a sense of nobility or a sense of humor. This remained a mystery until I attended a class given by Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld about the root of laughter in the Torah and its profound connection to belief and being visionary.
What is laughter?
To help understand this universal, cross-cultural chuckle impulse let’s dissect some jokes:
Joke #1 : Sam was brought to shul for his first time on Friday night by his Shabbos host, Rav Shapiro. As they headed back home, Rav Shapiro asked how the experience was. Sam answered enthusiastically,
“Oh, the service was beautiful—I especially liked the part when they all turned around and bowed to me.”
Joke #2: A man was driving along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway when his wife called sounding alarmed.
“Avi, I just heard on the radio that there’s a crazy man speeding in the opposite direction of traffic on the road. Be careful!”
“What do you mean, one car,” her husband replied. They’re all going in the wrong direction!”
Notice the pattern: There’s a story line, and it follows a predictable order, like A-B-C-D-E-F. The punch line, however, takes a quantum leap out of pattern, so that the structure of a joke becomes: A-B-C-D-E-F–Q. There is a departure from the predictable to something else. This something else is the spiritual realm of infinite possibilities, or the supernatural, as we’ll see from the following.
The Last Laugh
The Jewish people have a unique connection to humor because we come from Yitzchak. The root of the name Yitzchak are the letters tzaddi, ches, kuf, forming the Hebrew word tzechok, which means laughter. As descendants of Yitzchak, our genes are spiritually rooted in the characteristic of humor.
However, looking at the natures of each of the Avos, Yitzchak seems the least likely to be associated with the funny bone. Inviting guests into one’s home might call for the use of humor to make the atmosphere more relaxed and comfortable, and hachnassas orchim was Avraham’s specialty.
Yaacov is known for his balance of characteristics, while Yitzchack appears to be far more serious and reclusive than the other two forefathers and is in fact known for his gevurah– strength and strictness. What’s so funny about strictness and strength?
In fact, it is precisely the trait of gevurah that creates the force needed to vault out of the natural sequence of events and arrive at Q. Through his complete self-control, Yitzchak was able to submit constantly to the Divine will.
Yitzchak is that aspect of the Jewish people that has the ability to survive beyond the natural patterns of history. It was the greatest act of gevurah to allow himself, at the height of his strength, to be sacrificed on the altar. This strength has been tapped into myriad times by Jews across the globe and throughout history, as they offered their lives for their ideals. This capacity was bequeathed to us by Yitzchak.
Nothing funny about the trait of gevurah
Jewish history is replete with accounts of self-sacrifice, whether it was choosing the pyre over conversion or the constantly standing up against the lures of other cultures to maintain Shabbos, kashrus, and many other mitzvos. This is the inherited trait of gevurah at work. It is a tenacity that grants passage to a higher realm which extends beyond what is natural or predictable. This vaulting to a different dimension—a departure from the expected pattern– is the same dynamic expressed through humor.
Yitzchak’s entire life was predicated on non-natural patterns. First, he was named Yitzchak because Sarah laughed at the natural impossibility of giving birth to him at age ninety. And second, some commentaries say he actually was sacrificed and then revived (not quite the natural sequence we expect), which makes his entire existence a miracle, like that of his descendants, the Jewish people.
The root of humor
So what we have here at the root of humor is a potent mix: the far-reaching vision of a greater plan, and the astonishing gevurah, spiritual discipline, to get there. To be supernaturally transported to an unexpected destination – to the Q – that is the power of Yitzchak. And this is what we find as we follow our history. Somehow, against all odds, the Jewish people, heirs of Yitzchak, find themselves very much intact, an eternal enigma according to logic and the natural laws of history, funnily enough arriving at the finish line of history as participants in the last laugh.
Laughter is the natural response when what we expect is inverted, turned on its head, or appears suddenly different. This is the laughter expressed in “Shir HaMa’alos”: “Then, upon our return from exile, our mouths will be filled with laughter.” In the midst of our ordinary day there exists the inner knowledge of a an extraordinary reality. This is imprinted on the Jewish neshamah, hence the Jewish sense for humor. The Jewish character, tenacious and laced with a supernatural quality inherited through Yitzchak, sustains us and prepares us for the ultimate turnaround.
Now wouldn’t that be funny?
Dena is the author of:
Everyday Wholeness: Self-Coaching for the Jewish Family …The first Jewish coaching book; and
It Happened at the Heritage House: Tales from the Legendary Jewish Youth Hostel…True adventures in the Old City of Jerusalem
[Both by Menucha Publishers]