Laughter in the Midst of Pain | Congregation Beth Am

Laughter in the Midst of Pain

By Rabbi Chuck Briskin on
March 14, 2003

Let me tell you a joke:

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan lived an assimilated Jew who was a militant atheist. But he sent his son to Trinity School because, despite its denominational roots, it was a great school, and completely secular. After a month, the boy came home from school one day and said casually, "By the way Dad, do you know what Trinity means? It means the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." The father could barely control his rage. He seized his son by the shoulders and declared, "Danny, I'm going to tell you something now and I want you never to forget it. There is only one God -- and we don't believe in Him!"

It feels good to laugh, doesn’t it? Perhaps it has been a long time since we’ve heard a good joke. In these days, especially, laughter seems more difficult. It isn’t as bad, however, as it was in September, 2001. There was little laughter then, as the horror of 9/11 forced comedy to the sidelines, for what could possibly be funny during the midst of a national crisis? For several nights, TV executives postponed the regular brand of late night wit and banter. Then after a symbolic shiva, Leno and Letterman returned to the airwaves, albeit with somber monologues and reflective, heartfelt conversations. Letterman—whose comic genius is renowned—didn’t know if we were ready for humor. He was tentative and restrained. After all, how could anything be funny while the twisted iron and steel mountain of the World Trade Center continued to burn?

A couple of weeks later, Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live asked Mayor Rudy Giuliani on national TV, flanked by New York fireman and policemen, if it was okay to be funny. Giuliani said yes, and Saturday Night Live aired, with unusual biting satire. The mayor gave the nation permission to laugh. So Letterman and all of the other late night hosts returned to their comfortable format and have continued to make us laugh. Comedy was curtailed after 9/11, but it did not die. We just needed to be reassured that it was okay to laugh.

Laughter is a natural, physical response. Something we see or hear sets off a reaction that affects our entire body. Doctors can illustrate the physiology of laughter and sociologists and describe social contexts where laughter occurs; but does anyone truly know why we laugh? Think of a time you laughed so hard that you couldn’t catch your breath, and tears filled your eyes, and your stomach hurt. Even thinking about it now may bring a smile to your lips. These moments are fleeting but memorable, for it’s likely that we don’t laugh nearly as much as we should. How can we when there is so much pain in our world and in our lives? We’re trying to care for our family, our friends, and ourselves.

The scourges of society—the threat of war, hunger, and poverty weigh heavily on us. We have so many concerns that we sometimes don’t take the time to see and hear things that make us laugh: a funny movie, a witty essay, good comic theater. For adults, especially, laughter is hard. Heather King, an executive and mother remarked, “children laugh an average of 300 times per day, adults five times per day. We have a lot of catching up to do,” she said.

Jewish tradition values laughter. In fact, it is an essential part of our history and tradition. Remember when our ninety-year-old matriarch, Sarah, laughed when she learned from God that she would become pregnant? And the famous passage by Ecclesiastes that teaches, “To every thing there is a season, a time to weep and a time to laugh.” (Kohelet, 3:4). Purim, of course, is build around laughter as we gather to recite the comic tale of Esther. We mock our enemies and cut them down to size. Look at what we’ve done to Haman; he’s no longer a menacing villain. Instead we’ve turned him into a delicious fruit-filled triangular cookie.

Think back over the past century and consider all the Jews who became comedians. They responded to persecution, denigration, and inferiority by thumbing their noses at “big shots” through laughter. Most recently, Mel Brooks, another great comic genius of our time successfully managed to turn Hitler into a comic, farcical character in his Broadway musical, The Producers. It was almost surreal to be watching this play in a Broadway theater, filled with Jews, laughing uproariously at a comic portrayal of Hitler. But laugh I did—and I haven’t laughed as hard since.

Laughter can give us a sense of superiority even when we feel powerless. But how are we able to laugh when faced with devastation? We look back in history and recognize that even during our most difficult times, we have laughed. Today, we can also look to our brethren in Israel for some hints. Despite the onslaught of terror attacks during the past two years, Israelis have maintained their ability to laugh. Yet nowhere was their capacity for laughter in the face of terror more evident, than during the early spring of 1996.

For two terror filled weeks in February and March ‘96, Israel was devastated by a series of suicide bombings. The most vicious of them occurred the day before Purim by the Dizengoff Center, a crowded shopping district in downtown Tel Aviv. Parents and their children—many dressed in costumes—were preparing for Purim festivities. The terrorist detonated his bomb near a long line at an ATM machine. Twelve were killed; among the dead were three teenagers and more than one hundred were injured. The streets by the Dizengoff Center were supposed to be filled with Israelis celebrating Purim the following night, for in Israel, Purim is not contained to sanctuaries and social halls; Purim is taken to the streets. Revelry is abundant. The streets are teeming with people, spirits are high, and the crowds are intoxicated by joy—and a whole lot of Manischewitz as well. It’s loud, raucous, and fun. What does one do, however, when the streets where the celebrations take place are no longer safe, when the threat of terror forces officials to cancel the street parties that year? A move akin to shutting down New Orleans’ Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. What does one do? Look terror in its face and refuse to be defeated.

The following night, while Israel was mourning its dead, Jews managed to gather in synagogues and community centers—a few even on the streets—and put on brave faces. They told the comic tale of Esther and Mordechai, Haman and Ahasverosh. Many staged Purim-shpiels, parodying their rabbis and leaders, and especially their enemies. They observed the customs of Purim—sending gifts of food to friends and collecting money for the poor. Despite the collective grief and loss, Israelis thumbed their noses at Hamas and Haman and refused to let evil destroy their spirit, just as we’ve done during wars, pograms, and even during the Holocaust. On that Purim seven years ago, Jews worldwide danced and mourned, laughed and wept. We triumphed over hatred through laughter. Purim falls on Monday this year. Might we do the same?

We stand on the brink of war; an invasion of Iraq is imminent. Palestinian terror attacks have increased in Israel. America remains under a moderate terror alert. With so much uncertainty and concern, will we be able to laugh this Purim? We’re preparing to celebrate Purim this Monday, as indeed we must, but we will also remain concerned and conflicted about the prospect of war. Perhaps a last minute solution will be reached that will depose Sadaam while sparing Iraqi civilians. If that is not the case, I pray that any invasion will be quick, direct, and restrained. Sadaam Hussein is pure evil and he needs to be removed. I pray that it can happen with minimal civilian and American military casualties. We are accustomed to seeing new Hamans arise in every generation. Hussein is today’s Haman. Perhaps a modern day Mordechai and Esther will arise to expose Sadaam’s scheme and send him to the gallows. Yet whatever happens this weekend, Purim will fall on Monday, and we will gather as a community, and we will laugh.

Amidst our prayers and concern we must never not lose our ability to laugh, especially in stressful, worrisome times. Author Patty Wooten writes, “The ability to laugh at a situation or problem gives us a feeling of superiority and power. Humor and laughter can foster a positive and hopeful attitude. We are less likely to succumb to feelings of depression and helplessness if we are able to laugh at what is troubling us.”

Indeed, laughter can be a welcome catharsis from our pain and anxiety. The scroll of Esther is a comic tale, and Purim is a time that invites raucous, irreverent behavior even among the most sober and straight-laced among us. We gather in the sanctuary each year to poke fun at the world and at ourselves. We thumb our noses at those seek to harm us. We wear silly costumes and funny masks, and we step out of our usual restrained selves and behave in ways many are unaccustomed to seeing. At this season, more than ever, we need to join in revelry and celebration. We can’t forget suffering; neither can we neglect laughter.

To everything there is a season; a time for weeping and a time for laughing. It would be easy for us to be overcome by our tears. But laughter is a good remedy. Purim, especially, forces us to laugh, to enjoy and to release. Despite centuries of persecution, Jews have always managed to celebrate Purim. Laughter has prevailed through years and tears of pain and suffering. Let us gather on Monday and salute those who enable us to laugh. Remember that Purim is a time for celebration, even in the face of our enemies.

Let’s remember to laugh, for as poet Sean O’Casey wrote, “Laughter is wine for the soul—laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness…. the hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living.” We’ll join on Purim, and laugh, and we’ll raise our glasses in joy and celebration to say, L’chaim—to life worth living!

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