When we see a world that’s seemingly hurtling downhill, we should know that it’s an illusion
Confession: When I get my copy of Mishpacha, I read The Kichels first. There, I said it. I feel relieved having shared my little secret.
It gets worse. I’m prone to making dad puns at the Shabbos table, much to the anguished groans of the younger generation. I’m merciless. Where do I make duck cholent? In a quack pot. Alligator cholent? In a croc pot.
You’re probably thinking, This is atrocious! In which yeshivah did this rabbi learn?
I didn’t grow up this way. Raised in England, my humor morphed from hearing healthy self-deprecating jokes in Yiddish to the eccentric, somewhat twisted humor of Monty Python (anyone from the Ministry of Silly Walks?).
How many answers are there to the question, “What is black and white and red all over?” They range from the innocuous “a newspaper” to answers too dark to print.
There seems to be endless ways to make people laugh. Today, jokes can be generated by computers (What kind of murderer has moral fiber? A cereal killer). Scientific American (“What’s So Funny? The Science of Why We Laugh” Nov. 19, 2020) states, “There are so many different styles of humor that researchers don’t have specific information on how each one of them works.”
There is, however, a slapstick humor that seems to be universal. Imagine the most revered person you know. Perhaps a mechubad rav or a beloved zeide. Put him into a distinguished setting, like walking slowly toward a podium to deliver a speech in front of a huge, admiring crowd. Now picture that moments beforehand, a prankish child places a banana peel in his way. As he solemnly walks down the aisle, the mechubad speaker slips on the banana peel and flails as he struggles to regain his balance.
Everyone is cringing from embarrassment. We feel terrible for him. Yet the scene is also intrinsically funny. A smile escapes from our lips. Why?
What makes something funny?
THE PARADOX OF LAUGHTER
Shlomo Hamelech (Koheles 2:2) dismisses all laughter as inappropriate. “Leschok amarti mehulal — I said of laughter: It is folly,” he declares. Yet we know that when Rosh Chodesh Adar comes around, Klal Yisrael ramps up the shtik, and a month of laughter begins.
The connection between Adar and laughter goes back to the beginning of time. Sefer Yetzirah, a work attributed to Avraham Avinu (although the nusach we have today was arranged and edited by Rabi Akiva) describes the creation of the 12 months. It teaches us that each month has a unique letter and constellation. Furthermore, each month reveals an exclusive power in mankind, such as vision, hearing, speech, or movement (Sefer Yetzirah 5:1). The final power, according to the Arizal and later commentaries, corresponding to the month of Adar, is tzchok, laughter.
Of all of Hashem’s creations, it’s only man who has the capacity to laugh at a joke. Apologies to hyena fans. It’s interesting to note, though, that Hashem also laughs, as the passuk says, “Yoshev bashamyin yischak — [Hashem] Who dwells in the heavens will laugh” (Tehillim 2:4).” In what way is laughing at a joke a power exclusive to humanity, along with seeing and hearing? Why does it “belong” to Adar? And why did Shlomo Hamelech denounce it?
THE FIRST LAUGH
A name defines the essence of a person. The Zohar (1:136b) on the passuk “Avraham holid es Yitzchak” (Toldos 25:19) teaches us that the story of Yitzchak Avinu and the story of laughter in This World are one and the same.
Yitzchak, whose name means “will laugh,” isn’t exactly the first person who would come to mind to define laughter. His middah is gevurah, associated with strict justice and self-control. He effortlessly acquiesced to be sacrificed at the Akeidah, a merit we invoke on the Day of Judgement. Not exactly the funny guy we think.
We’re wrong. Yitzchak’s essence, and in particular his birth, is the quintessential joke. What’s so hilarious about Yitzchak?
Avraham Avinu knew the future by reading the stars. Stars reveal the higher reality of nature (see Ramchal’s Derech Hashem 1:5 for an in-depth understanding of this concept). Avraham Avinu, and every astrologist of his time, saw with clarity that he and Sarah Imeinu were incapable of having children (Midrash Bereishis, 37). The Gemara expounds that Sarah had no womb and was thus physically incapable of having children (Yevamos 64b). She was also 90 years old at the time of Yitzchak’s birth. Without a child, everything Avraham and Sarah had built would disappear. No Klal Yisrael, no Mashiach. No future for the world.
Then Yitzchak was born. Ba-dum ching.
We’ve found the source of humor. The common thread of every joke is that a process unfolds, and we expect it to continue that way. Suddenly the process reverses itself in a surprising or strange way. That’s what we call a punchline. In Chazal, it’s called hipuch. It provokes a reaction called tzchok, laughter.
The greater the difference between our expectations and the sudden reversal, the funnier the joke. In the slapstick scenario described earlier, the humor is directly proportional to the distance between the distinguished setting and the silliness of the unexpected reversal.
Yitzchak is the ultimate joke because Yitzchak contains within the ultimate reversal of history. The Gemara reveals that the Jewish people will enjoy the World to Come in the zechus of Yitzchak (Shabbos 89b). Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer (30) adds that Yitzchak experienced Techiyas Hameysim at the Akeidah. In his merit, we’ll discover that death is ultimately an illusion. The Zohar (1:23b) notes that the name Yitzchak is an anagram of ketz chai, roughly translated as “in the end everything comes back to life.”
Yitzchak, through his own life, shows that all of history is one big joke. Over thousands of years, our world has been spiritually going downhill (see Sotah 49a). The powers of darkness increases daily. But when Mashiach comes, the world will experience the ultimate turnaround.
With the birth of Yitzchak, a counter humor was created. It’s the ruchniyus equivalent of Newton’s third law of motion. For every force in kedushah there’s an equal and opposite force in tumah (see Koheles 7:14).
Rashi (Toldos 25:19) gives us the backstory. The laytzanay hador, the ancient equivalent of Comedy Central, started rumors that Yitzchak’s father was Avimelech. After all, they claimed, it made so much sense. Sarah and Avraham had been married for so long without children. Sarah is abducted by Avimelech and suddenly she’s pregnant. This is side-splitting!
Hashem neutralized the scoffers by making Yitzchak’s face extremely similar to the illustrious countenance of Avraham. Everyone was forced to admit that Avraham was the father.
The Brisker Rav asks the obvious question. Avraham’s ability to have children was common knowledge. In his old age, he’d already fathered Yishmael. Sarah was the one who was obviously barren. Why didn’t the laytzanay hador start rumors that Sarah wasn’t the mother? With the way they dressed in that time period and in that part of the world, her changing figure wouldn’t have been obvious.
He answers that the comedians had a dark agenda. Avraham Avinu had introduced to the world the idea of One G-d Above and the consequential obligations. He’d started a revolution that had thousands of followers. He was jeopardizing the immoral and idolatrous lifestyle at its very core. Everyone felt threatened.
Yet they took comfort in the fact that the revolution had no future. Avraham and Sarah were barren, and with their demise, the Hashem Echad revolution would be over. Idolatry would prevail!
Then came Yitzchak. The potential for Klal Yisrael — Matan Torah and ultimately techiyas hameisim — had been set into motion. This ruined everything. They had to act fast. Call in the experts from Canaanite Saturday Night Live and their problems were solved. The Brisker Rav explains that the target of their humor had to be Avraham because he was the one they needed to bring down.
We’ve now solved the paradox of laughter.
Shlomo Hamelech understood that in every joke there’s an echo of the laytzanay hador, desperately trying to trivialize the threat of the birth of Yitzchak Avinu. They’re the source of the laughter of fools (Koheles 7:6) that distract us from focusing on our mission in This World.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Before bentshing, we sing the words of Dovid Hamelech (Tehillim 126:2) “Az yemaleh schok pinu, then [in the future], our mouths will be filled with laughter.” This is true Jewish humor, when the ultimate punchline will be revealed at the End of Days. Every joke we make is an attempt to experience the idea of unexpected reversal, which in turn, is a taste of az yemaleh schok pinu.
When we hear or see something funny, it triggers an allusion to the turnaround for which we constantly yearn. On the deepest level, our laughter is an anticipation for the Ultimate Laughter.
THE LAST MONTH
The Jewish calendar is a microcosm of Jewish history. The first month, Nissan, corresponds to the birth of the Jewish people. The last month, Adar, represents the final chapter of our story.
Not surprisingly, Haman rejoiced when his Pur, the “lots” that would decide the date of his planned genocide of the Jews, landed in Adar. After all, that was the month of Moshe Rabbeinu’s death, who was the essence of the Klal Yisrael (see Midrash Rabbah, Shir Hashirim 1:65).
The joke was chillingly simple: the first month, Nissan, was the month of the birth of the Jewish people, and now the last month, Adar, would be the month of their destruction. History was unfolding perfectly. Haman, and his nation Amalek, would prevail and have the last laugh. In Mishlei (see Midrash Tanchuma 18:2), Amalek is called the letz, the ultimate scoffer.
But the joke was on him. Because Adar is also the month of Moshe’s birth. The birth and death of Moshe Rabbeinu aren’t two events that happened, by chance, to fall on the same day, and somehow Haman missed that detail. Rather, they’re two parts of a glorious whole, a point that Haman couldn’t fathom.
Moshe’s death was the point before the punchline, when everything looked like it would unfold a certain way; it seemed we were heading irrevocably toward witnessing the destruction of the Jewish People. The leytzaney hador were rolling in laughter.
Haman was only capable of focusing on this part of the joke. But the fact that Moshe’s birth, symbolic of the Jewish people’s rebirth, was also in Adar, was the punchline, the reversal of the World Order. No, the Jewish people weren’t going to be destroyed in Adar, they were going to be reborn!
Hadar kibluha biyemei Achashveirosh. Chazal tell us that Klal Yisrael celebrated Purim by reaccepting the Torah (Shabbos 88a) out of love. It was Matan Torah all over again. It parallels the great laughter of Yitzchak’s birth; it had looked as though the Jewish people were going to end when they had barely begun, but now they would continue.
Fittingly, the human power of the final month is tzchok, laughter. In different months, we relate to the world through powers such as vision, hearing, speech, and movement. In the final month, we relate through laughter.
Let’s take a fresh look at the Purim story.
For a joke to be truly funny, the buildup must contribute to the unexpected reversal. Chazal and later commentaries, like the Vilna Gaon, are effusive in sharing how every step that created the unstoppable ascent of Haman’s powers contributed to Haman’s unexpected downfall. Borrowing from the words of the Megillah (9:1), v’nahafoch hu, everything that Haman built engineered the hipuch, the punchline.
For example, Haman built gallows 50 amos (about 80 feet) high so that it towered over the Shushan skyline. His goal was to intimidate and frighten the Jews. When Achashveirosh exploded with anger against Haman, Charvonah directed Achashveirosh’s eyes to the gallows that were destined for the man who’d saved the king’s life (Esther 7:9). The visual of the gallows pushed Achashveirosh over the edge. “Hang him on those gallows!” he roared.
The gallows could only be seen by the king because Haman wanted them towering and visible. Haman had cooked his own goose.
Rashi adds two beautiful words of explanation to the Chazal of Hadar kibluha biyemei Achashveirosh: m’ahavas haneis, it was out of love of the miracle. In other words, the joy and rededication to Torah wasn’t just a result of their being saved from Haman’s decree. It was from the nature of the miracle itself; that Haman had brought about his own destruction, that until Hashem orchestrated the turnaround, it looked like his handiwork was leading to his dazzling success, when in reality it led to his downfall.
They chapped the joke.
THE LAUGHTER OF GEULAH
In the beginning of parshas Bo, Hashem informs Moshe that He’s about to unleash three more plagues on the Egyptians. Hashem explains that future generations need to know, “asher hisolalti b’Mitzrayim,” that I have made a mockery of Egypt.
Every geulah must come with mockery. The point isn’t to mock the downfall of our enemies. Rather it is for us to rejoice at the unexpected reversal. It’s to strengthen our emunah in how Hashem runs the world. When we see a world that’s seemingly hurtling downhill, we should know that it’s an illusion. Behind the scenes, Hashem is planting the seeds to reveal the Kel Elyon and the illustrious elevation of His people. He uses the evil intent of our enemies to nourish those seeds. We watch our oppressors go from strength to strength and then, as if they were blowing too much air into a balloon, it explodes into their face, revealing that all along it was nothing but air.
In recent history, we had a taste of this spectacle. For almost a century, communism dominated world politics. It ruled with intimidation and terror. Then overnight, “poof,” it exploded into nothingness.
The chassidic masters add a delightful point. When Hashem told Moshe that the last three plagues would come with laughter, he wanted Klal Yisrael to be in on the joke. Geulah can’t come when we’re miserable and depressed. Geulah needs simchah.
We’re living in tumultuous times, and the pain is very real. Nevertheless, if we look closely, we can see that Hashem is making a mockery of those trying to replace Him. When the US government approved the Pfizer vaccine, some news outlets celebrated with, “In science we trust!”
The same day, the same news outlets announced the “British variant” of coronavirus, somberly commenting that we don’t know if the vaccine is effective for this variant.
Similarly, Hashem seems to be making a mockery of those who worship our political systems, creating scenarios that can only be described as hilariously bizarre.
We need to notice these little jokes. Especially in the month of Adar. With all the challenges to our emunah, we need to pick up on these messages so we can taste the simchah.
This Purim, let the laughter flow. Let the v’nahafoch hu of Shushan in the last month of the year precipitate the v’nahafoch hu of all of history. We’re all ready to have our mouths filled with laughter. We’re ready for the last laugh.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 732)
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