RH Day One 5777/2016: On Laughter

On Laughter

This year, in the droughty Pioneer Valley, it has been a little easier than usual to imagine what Israel looks like at Rosh Hashanah. In the Middle East, climate change notwithstanding, the seasons are divided simply between wet and dry, and the onset of rain is expected just after the High Holidays. In ancient times, the late grains would be standing ready for harvest, and the water stocks in wells and cisterns running low, making for a moment of great hope and trepidation.

This is a sensible time to mark the new year, the advent of a dramatic change in the weather, bringing one cycle of labor to a close and initiating another. This placement also explains why our Jewish new year has a somber quality, far removed from the champagne and ball-dropping of the secular one. Even in ancient times, the rainy season could be inconsistent, and out of this natural fluctuation our ancestors derived a theology linking the success of the rains to their own moral righteousness. We find it clearly expressed in the passage of Deuteronomy that follows the Shema in our prayerbook. “If you earnestly heed the commandments that I give you,” says God, “then I will favor your land with rain at the proper season.” Here is the root of the existential ferment we still associate with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It began in the anxiety with which the ancient Israelites greeted the rain, believing it would bring them blessing only if their hearts were right with God.

The connection between Rosh Hashanah and its Torah readings is a little less obvious. Next week we will review God’s instructions to Aaron, the High Priest, regarding the performance of the first Yom Kippur. But Rosh Hashanah is, more or less, a post-Biblical holiday. The scant material that exists in Torah regarding the first of Tishrei, though it does suggest we blow the shofar, makes no reference to the birthday of the world, or a day of judgment. We chant this passage as our maftir, today and tomorrow, but the main readings for both days are drawn from farther afield. They are stories from Genesis, about the first family of Judaism, a “complicated family system” if there ever was one–Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. In particular, we recount a series of events that attended the birth of Isaac, and his adolescence.

One plausible commentary suggests it is fitting to read a birth story at the start of a new year, particular one that represents cultural renewal. Abraham initiated a covenant with God. With the birth of his son he passed this legacy on to the next generation–just as one year follows the next–in the very first instance of Jewish continuity.

But I want to share another interpretation with you today, by proposing a connection between these stories and the angst-ridden opening of the rainy season. It’s really more of an analogy than a direct connection. Like the time of year, these tales also hinge on the descent of a revitalizing power onto a parched landscape, and invite us to consider what kind of purification we must undergo in order to experience its bounty. Only, here, it isn’t rain. It’s laughter.

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Though we’ve produced many celebrated comedians, and have a rich trove of indigenous humor, Jewish lore is actually ambivalent on the subject of laughter. For example, Rabbi Yochanan, an early Talmudic sage, gave this teaching in the name of his colleague, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. “It is forbidden,” he said, “that a person’s mouth be filled with laughter in this world.” For a prooftext, he cited a phrase from Psalm 126, otherwise known as the first paragraph of birkat hamazon, the grace after meals: az yimalei skhok pinu. “Then will our mouths be full of laughter.” The words are in the future tense: then, and not now. They are followed by a verse that envisions the messianic restoration of the exiled Jews: “Then will they say among the nations: the Lord has done great things with these.” Only after this deliverance, says the rabbi, may we fill our mouths with laughter. In the meantime, in an unredeemed world, laughter should be greeted with suspicion. The point is reinforced by a selection of anecdotes, which describe the efforts of sages to disrupt wedding feasts when they grew too merry. One smashes his goblet against the ground, in a prefiguration of the custom of breaking the glass. Another is asked to sing to the company. He gets up on his chair and begins to wail, “Woe are we who are all doomed to die!”

The teaching is of its time, coming in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of Judea, when anyone not already miserable was encouraged to be so out of solidarity. But it invites us to look more broadly, and question the very place of frivolity in this imperfect world. Life, it reminds us, is serious. Too much laughter may dull us to the noble contemplation of our fate, or our responsibility to alleviate suffering. It may even diminish our capacity to bear hardship. We should also recognize that laughter itself partakes of the world’s imperfection. We are taught in halakha, Jewish law, to avoid telling stories about others, even if they are true, because we cannot control the repercussions of the truth. Similarly, it is possible for even an innocent laugh to create suffering.

But the Talmud is big enough to contain other perspectives. God Himself is portrayed in these pages as persisting in a state of prolonged melancholy after destroying the Temple and exiling the Jews. But in one charming passage He is said to reserve an hour of every day to be mitsakhek, to laugh and play, with Leviathan, the beloved divine pet. Elsewhere, praise, along with a special place in Olam HaBa, the world to come, is given to jesters, whose mirth raises the spirits of the downtrodden. They are holy fools who provide, not trivial distraction, but the sweetness that makes life palatable. To put it another way: if an unredeemed world in no place for laughter, then laughter itself offers the taste of redemption.

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Abraham, in Torah, is the father of laughter, or, at least, there is no mention of it before him, as if it were a latent potentiality, a kind of tickling, flavored breath, lying undiscovered until his time. His primal laugh arrives like the cloudburst that alleviates a drought. God’s promise of a child to Abraham and Sarah had gone unrealized. At Sarah’s encouragement, he had fathered Ishmael by Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, and then both he and Sarah had grown old. Then, one day, God tells Abraham that this promise has been remembered, and Abraham finds the news very amusing. “Will a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old,” he giggles, “and his wife ninety?” Then he falls to the ground, convulsed by laughter.

In the texture of Torah, overlapping variations of the same story, perhaps originating in competing oral traditions, often appear side-by-side, and there is another version of this one, in which it is Sarah, not Abraham, who laughs at the annunciation. Three mysterious strangers come shimmering out of the desert. As they dine with Abraham, on a meal she has helped to prepare, Sarah eavesdrops on their conversation from a hiding place at the doorway of the tent. She hears them speak of the fulfillment of God’s promise, and she also finds it funny. Only, she doesn’t laugh out loud. Vatitskahk Sarra bikirbah, we read. And Sarah laughed inwardly. She laughed within herself. The stern lines of her face betrayed no sign of amusement, at least nothing more than the faintest Mona Lisa smile. Her rendition of the joke, too, is more intimate, with a risque focus on the mechanics of conception. “Am I to have pleasure now,” she wonders, “with my husband being so old?” But God, who is the only character in the story capable of perceiving this subterranean response, overhears her, and asks, “Why did she laugh?” Sarah is mortified to be caught in such a private thought. “I didn’t laugh,” she says, “Oh, but you did,” says God.

Traditional commentators try to parse out the difference between one laugh and another. Abraham, they tell us, though royally amused, laughs in good faith, delighted by the realization of a promise he always assumed would be fulfilled. But Sarah’s secret laughter is tinged with incredulity. Tentative excitement, maybe even the stirring of erotic pleasure, is overlaid with suspicion and acerbic wit, leading God to chastise her for lack of faith. This is a callous reading, betraying patriarchal bias. It fails to take into account how a reaction might be conditioned by gender and status, or how truly embarrassing it might have been for her to be a superannuated new mother, or how resentful she felt at being played as a pawn in her husband’s destiny. But there is some truth in it. Sarah is unable to respond to this fall of rain after a dry season with the full-throated guffaw of her husband. She seems warped by circumstances–long years of disappointment and envy at the happiness of others–into a predisposition to perceive bursts of gaiety as jokes told at her expense. She is unable to tell God why she laughs, but instead blasphemes against the arousal of her own joy, and the vague fluttering in her lungs transforms to splinters that lodge in her breast. She names the child Yitskhak, “he will laugh” explaining the choice with reference to fear of mockery, rather than gladness. “God has made a laughingstock of me,” she says. “Everyone who hears of this will laugh at me.”

This wound of spirit leads to further tragedy. Isaac has been weaned and is already a child, wandering the encampment on his own two feet, when, one day, we are told, Sarah observes Ishmael, the son of Hagar, mitsakhek–laughing or playing–the same form of the verb, actually, that is used to describe God sporting with Leviathan. The commentary makes a typical effort to denigrate characters outside the Jewish nuclear family, telling us that Ishmael was doing something wrong, engaged in some form of play that was cruel or untoward, though there is no evidence of this in Torah, only the verb itself. But Sarah is enraged, and demands that Abraham banish Ishmael and Hagar. We would say now that something has “triggered” her. In the language of her complaint, she protests that she doesn’t want Ishmael to inherit ahead of her own son. But this concern might easily have occurred to her before, and only seems billowed up now by its emotional content. No, there is something about Ishmael’s laughter itself that makes Sarah mad, and ungenerous, maybe that it is brazen, open-mouthed, and unrepentant, or because God does not call him on it, or because, in her brokenness, she assumes that he is laughing at her, that he is, himself, a joke at her expense. Whatever the reason, Ishmael and his mother are sent into the wilderness, where they would have died but for divine intervention. It is in this way, in an unredeemed world, that innocent laughter brings suffering.

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We should wonder where Isaac was when this happened. I imagine that he was there, a timid little boy overawed by his older brother, by the intoxicating danger of the games Ishmael liked to play, and by the world of fun revealed in his raucous laughter. But then, suddenly, his mother is very angry, and then his brother is gone. Isaac grows up alone, the only child of elderly parents. His father loves him, but doesn’t laugh any more, a serious man, devoted to his mission, and bearing the weight of the grave decisions he has made. His mother’s love is fierce, tangible, and silent. When he returns from the harrowing trip with his father, the midrash tells us, it is to discover that she is dead. He becomes a wanderer, known for his solitary, twilight walks in the open field. A careful study of the Torah’s geography reveals that he has a penchant to tend, by some unconscious impulse, toward destinations where he might catch sight of his brother. When a wife is brought for him, we are told that he loves her, but it is described as a love that alleviates sadness, rather than bringing joy. And, all the while, the name is hanging over him like a prophecy. Yitskhak. He will laugh. But when will he laugh? And how?

This story begins in an actual drought. The rains fail, the pasture withers, and a famine ensues, driving Isaac west toward the sea, to live among the Philistines. Borrowing a page from his father’s playbook, he passes off his beautiful wife as his sister, presuming his hosts will respect the sanctity of kinship more than marriage. They live like this for some time, unmolested, in a rainless land, bearing the considerable strain of secrecy for the sake of their survival. But one day, Avimelekh, the king, looking out of his window, beholds a vision that changes his perspective. Vihinei yitskhak mitsakhek et Rivka ishto. Isaac was mitsakhek–laughing, playing–with his wife Rebecca, revealing himself, not just to the Philistine king but to us, to be something other than we thought: a creature of desire and delight, a holy fool in a vale of tears, knowing there is no reason for laughter, and that nothing is redeemed without it.

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Pablo Neruda called laughter “the language of the soul.” (I learned this from an episode of “The Simpsons.”) Perhaps he was referring to its spontaneity, its capacity to impose itself upon us despite our pretensions, to be reflexive and visceral in response to a tickle or a joke, or the promptings of thought and memory. If it could speak, it might say, “I didn’t expect that,” and only the greatest actors, in art and life, can force it convincingly. It is a pleasure, whether secret or shared, but it can be cruel, too, and bitter, though I like to think, in wishful naivety, that these are perversions of its nature. Sometimes, late at night, I hear my little son break out laughing in his sleep, and in the morning we try to piece together the silly details of his dream, while I worry about his future.

But it is not quite the same thing as rain, even though a soul that cannot laugh is like a desert. It will not make the crops grow, and you can go a lifetime without cracking a smile, so long as you have water. But it is only magical thinking that allows us to believe that prayers will bring rain, whereas laughter is a true barometer of the spirit. How we laugh, like Abraham or Sarah, Isaac or Ishmael, or God and His Leviathan, will tell us who we are, what we long for, how we have been wounded, even what sins we are guilty of; and how we fail to laugh will tell us just as much.

Rosh Hashanah, our new years day, is somber. It asks us to reserve our bacchanalia for December–to step away from an overly amused society and remind ourselves that life is real, and deadly serious. But its aim is laughter. We stand against the backdrop of a land at the acme of its drought, and atone for the contortions that have made us incapable, if not unworthy, of joy. Then we hope to merit the downpour of a holy foolishness, without which life is irredeemable.

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