Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript – May 21, 2000
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Hello, this is Simon Jacobson and welcome to Toward a Meaningful Life. We’re on every Sunday from 6-7pm, 1050AM on WEVD.
Today, for a change of pace, I decided to choose a lighter topic, but first I want to thank the listeners and people who have written in following last week’s show on women and women’s issues and the previous show before that on homosexuality.
So to balance it (as life should be balanced—with a combination and chemistry of both intense and lighter periods), some friends suggested that I do a show on “Humor.” And that is, what is the role of humor in our lives, and by extension, laughter. Particularly from a spiritual perspective, we find humor is very much a part of our contemporary society where comedy—which may even border on cynicism—is very much a part of the entertainment industry.
So what exactly is the role of humor in our lives and how can it help us? Is there healthy humor? Unhealthy humor? And what is the anatomy of humor and its relationship with us?
To begin, when you talk about humor, it’s hard to be humorous because humor is often a spontaneous type of thing, but if anyone has any personal experiences or anecdotes where humor has served a role in their lives, even during hard or trying times, please call in and share it with us.
To begin with, from a spiritual, Torah perspective, there are references to humor in the Talmud, and particularly one that stands out is the story where a rabbi (a sage and scholar) asks Elijah the Prophet if anyone in the marketplace is going to have the reward of a share in the World to Come.
Elijah points out two individuals who will have a share in the World to Come. So the Sage goes over to these two individuals and asks them what they do because he wanted to know what caused them to earn that reward. And they said they are comedians, badchanim in Hebrew: they lift people’s spirits through their humor. By doing that, as the Talmud puts it, it also brings peace between people. In other words, they use humor to reconcile differences.
It’s interesting that of all the people the Talmud would choose to earn a share in the World to Come, it would be comedians, people who make others laugh. Interestingly, the Talmud continues and says that there was another person Elijah said would have a share in the World to Come, and that was a jail guard. In the time that there were totalitarian regimes, jail guards would protect the people who were jailed and inform the rabbis of impending decrees and so on.
So the contrast or parallel between a jail guard and comedians is interesting. I once read somewhere that the comparison is that someone who causes you to laugh is someone who can, in a way, help to free you from your own prison. They help you free yourself from depression or experiences that may lock you.
We see that when a person is able to laugh at certain things, at certain experiences in life, that helps free you.
I think this Talmud is a very good point to begin with. You see from this that humor has a very clear role that is not just connected to immediate remedies, but that someone can actually earn a share in the World to Come, in olam haba, as an eternal reward for their soul because they made another person smile.
That’s something that each of us can take to heart. Now, what exactly is this concept called humor?
You find in another place in the Talmud that before one of the Sages would begin delivering his lesson, he would begin with a joke, which he did “in order to lighten the hearts and open the hearts of the students.”
As a matter of fact, the Zohar says something even stronger, that without humor, there is no wisdom. Without a sense of humor, one cannot really have wisdom. In other words, to open up a mind, a heart, to truly be able to understand things, humor plays a very significant role.
On the other hand, you definitely see how humor can turn into cynicism. That’s what’s called “frivolous humor,” to the extent that I once remember receiving an email from someone who wrote to me that in the Talmud it clearly states in Jewish law that as long as the Messiah is not here, as long as the world is not perfect, a person should not open his mouth in laughter.
In other words, there’s a prohibition against laughing more than is necessary in this world that we live in, which seemingly may contradict what we were just discussing, but in truth, there are two types of humor.
There’s a humor that’s frivolous—where you’re either cynical or you laugh at other people—a humor that doesn’t allow you to experience something transcendental, that keeps us trapped.
On the other hand, when humor is part and parcel of serving G-d, where it becomes something that helps you grow and helps you become more G-dly, or make other people smile, then that’s a different story.
In other words, laughter and humor, simcha in Hebrew, is part of serving G-d in a way that allows us to experience something beyond ourselves. However, if it’s humor that is self-indulgent, narcissistic, exclusionary, elitist and the like, that is really a deterrent to anything spiritual.
So humor, like anything, can be abused or used in a good way. To lead a meaningful life and to be able to find purpose and solace, we need to be able to also learn the secret of learning how to smile.
Sometimes life becomes so serious, so intense, that smiling is a form of a release and a form of lightheartedness where you don’t always take yourself so seriously.
They say that there’s a very fine line between tragedy and comedy—or as a cynic would put it, it’s a tragedy if it happens to yourself. It’s a comedy if it happens to someone else.
But that’s not what I want to say. I’m just citing that on a humorous note.
But the truth is, humor can play a very significant role in a person’s life, particularly when a person is very intense. Then you need to be able to step back and sometimes smile at yourself. In Yiddish there’s an expression, “A mensch tracht un G-t lacht,” which means, “A person thinks and G-d smiles.” This means that sometimes we make plans and we’re very intense about it and we’ve dedicated our time to some activity, but G-d has other plans. Sometimes you have to learn how to smile, which is probably the easiest way to deal with a difficult situation.
I remember someone once wrote something called, How to deal with getting fired from your job? Getting fired from your job is often a very traumatic experience, because besides the fact that it creates insecurity, it’s also very demoralizing.
Some of you may remember Billy Martin, a former manager of the Yankees. Martin had a love-hate relationship with George Steinbrenner, the owner of the Yankees, and I I think he was hired or fired six or seven times. Once he was fired, Yogi Berra was hired to fill his shoes. Yogi Berra comes to the manager’s office and sees on the desk two envelopes from Billy Martin that say, “To the new manager. Open only in case of emergency.”
Envelope number one said, “In case of emergency number one,” and envelope number two said, “In case of emergency number two.”
So he didn’t touch them because there was no emergency yet. The Yankees began winning and everything was fine. As soon as they began losing, of course, Steinbrenner began mouthing off to the newspapers. The manager’s seat got hot and there was talk about Yogi Berra begin canned (that was in Steinbrenner’s younger years when he was a little bit more volatile), so Berra comes into the office and opens up emergency envelope number one which says, “Blame it all on me (Billy Martin).”
So Yogi Berra calls a press conference and says that the reason the Yankees are losing is that the morale is still low from the previous manager and they still have to get into the groove.
And he buys a few weeks for himself, and of course the Yankees begin winning again, so Steinbrenner cools down.
But a few months pass and they get into another slump. This time it’s really serious because Steinbrenner really wants the Yankees to win the pennant, so Yogi Berra comes running into the office and opens up envelope number two. It says: “Prepare two envelopes.”
This is a way of getting fired. Getting fired can be a very demoralizing experience but here, by preparing those envelopes, Billy Martin was using humor to help Yogi Berra get ready to move on.
Humor has that power to defuse things and to lighten things up. I want to emphasize that when I say humor I don’t mean frivolous, condescending or abusive humor where someone may insult or hurt someone else at their expense for a cheap laugh.
I’m talking about the kind of humor, as described by the Talmud, that makes people smile, that lifts their spirits; the type of laugh where everyone’s in a very serious mode and then someone just breaks out into a smile.
Some situations are so ludicrous (I don’t want to call them tragic) but in a way so crazed, that you can laugh at them. That’s the positive role that it plays, as I cited the Talmud, opening up people’s hearts and spirits to be a little more positive about things.
In Judaism there’s the concept of “ivdu et Hashem b’simcha,” to serve G-d with joy. Even in situations that are seemingly difficult, joy can give you the inner majesty and internal peace to not be completely demoralized by them. You often find also that people with a good sense of humor can also be very serious, because they have a certain appreciation of the marrow, the mystery of life.
In a way, their seriousness side and their light side both come from the same place. They have that type of understanding of the human condition.
So let’s go to the phones. I see we have Stu Trivax on the line, a stand-up comic who comes to my class. I mentioned this show to him and said that perhaps he could call in and we could have a few minutes to talk about humor.
So Stu, I think it’s quite appropriate to have someone who’s a master of humor…
Stu Trivax: Well, thank you.
Jacobson: Stu Trivax, by the way, for those of you who don’t know, is an acclaimed stand-up comic. Is that the official title you have?
Stu Trivax: Stand-up comic. That’s it.
Jacobson: Do you ever sit down and do comedy or only standing?
Stu Trivax: I can do that too.
Jacobson: Anyway, Stu has appeared in different films and on TV, I think you’ve been on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno several times and many other shows. People probably know you more by face than on radio, but nevertheless, thank you for calling in.
So as an objective humorist, what’s your opinion on humor?
Stu Trivax: Well, I think it is a very useful tool. I think any time, in a positive way, like you were saying before, you can raise somebody’s spirits, it’s useful because life can be so difficult for most people, and everybody has their ups and downs and their difficulties during the day. If you can find some way to make them happy, or even as you said just make them smile, it can have an effect for the rest of the day or even longer. Even if it can just make them cope a little bit more easily, or even make them see something in a different way, that can be helpful.
Jacobson: Let me ask you, since you do this professionally, do you see this as a personal thing as well for you, or do you compartmentalize? The fact is, you may make people smile and lift their spirits, but how do you balance those two things in your own personal life? Is it part of your spiritual growth, your own personal development?
Stu Trivax: I would say it carries over into my daily activities. Recently I’ve been spending some time in a senior citizen’s home and some of the people I come in contact with are unable to carry on a complete conversation—they can be in their 90’s and dealing with them can be difficult—but I find if I smile at them I get a response. Very often they will smile back. Even though they’re not speaking, they see a bright face, a smiling face, and then sometimes the people can speak a little or I can say something light or kid around in a way that they can understand, and this really lifts their spirits. A lot of these people are kind of sad during the day because people don’t really deal with them very much.
So even a little thing like that can help, and if I can do that I really feel good about being able to use my humor in that way to lift somebody’s spirits in the course of the day.
Jacobson: Did you ever have to get up there and perform in a terrible mood?
Stu Trivax: Sometimes yes. Like everybody else, you go to work and sometimes you’re in a better mood than other times. Sometimes I’ve been preoccupied with certain family situations that have been very difficult or health problems that people in my family might have. But once you get up on stage, especially in the situation where you have the microphone in your hand, the lights are on and people are looking at you, I think most professional comedians can focus on what they have to do, and do the performance they need to do in that situation.
I’ve had some very, very good sets where beforehand I wasn’t feeling particularly funny.
Jacobson: Do you have any good humorous stories about humor?
Stu Trivax: I have this one little story. It’s not my joke. It’s a joke I heard which might be apropos to the audience.
Four Jewish women in a restaurant and they’re in the middle of lunch. A waiter comes by and says, “Ladies, is anything all right?”
So humor is often based on something that might be true. But with kind of a good-hearted warmth about it, I think, affects people in a nice way.
Jacobson: How did you choose to do what you do?
Stu Trivax: I think it’s something that I was always drawn to. I was funny among friends, and especially in New York City they have small clubs where you can go and audition for two or three minutes. Because I was in a situation where I had the opportunity to do that, I put some material together and tried my hand it.
But being funny with friends and being funny on stage is really very, very different. When you’re on stage, you really have to create an atmosphere that people who don’t know you can relate to and feel good about.
So that usually takes a bit of work.
Jacobson: For any aspiring stand-up comics listening to us, what do you tell them if they say something and people don’t laugh?
Stu Trivax: Well, that’s one of the things you really have to get over, because I don’t know any comic who’s been on stage who hasn’t gone through a situation like that. I think the main thing is to remain centered and cool and not make more of it than it is and go on to your next joke or whatever story you’re going to say after that.
If you seem relaxed and calm and able to cope with it, the audience will usually go with you and it won’t be that big a thing. But if they see you sweat or uncomfortable, you really telegraph to them that things aren’t going well and they pick up on that and then they reflect that back to you which isn’t so good.
Jacobson: So is comedy a good profession for a good Jewish boy?
Stu Trivax: It can be. Actually, doing stand-up comedy is good and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a little work. But the business aspect of show business is kind of difficult so you have to balance the two.
Jacobson: Well, for some reason I find that a lot of comedians are Jewish. Is that correct?
Stu Trivax: A lot of comedians are Jewish, although now there are a lot more from different ethic backgrounds. There are a lot of Hispanic and Black comics who are getting into it. Especially with cable TV, and the popularity of comedy for so many years around the country, a lot of people have been trying their hand, and some of them have been very successful.
Jacobson: Finally, what would you say to the listening audience here about humor. Not everyone’s a stand-up comic. What message do you have?
Stu Trivax: I think if you can develop what’s funny about you in any situation with friends, co-workers or anything like that where if something is a little tense or a little awkward, you can say something in a way that would relieve people or calm people down or make people see a lighter side of something, I think it would be a very useful tool.
The trick is to balance it. You don’t want to say something that’s going to be harsh or go over the line or say something that’s going to embarrass somebody else, but at the same time, if you can just find the right words or say it in the right way, you can be a great help to a lot of people.
Jacobson: Do you have any final joke or something you’d like to share?
Stu Trivax: Well, I think you do a great job. I really enjoy going to your classes and I think your humor is sort of subtle so I really like hearing you speak. I would just like to encourage people to check out one of your classes on a Wednesday night. It’s very uplifting and there’s humor throughout, and it can be a great tool to find your way day to day in dealing with life’s ups and downs.
Jacobson: Well, Stu, I appreciate your calling. And I see you have a very serious side as well.
Stu Trivax: I do. You were right about that—about seriousness and comedy coming from the same person.
Jacobson: So thanks again and keep making people smile. And remember, you have a share in the World to Come and may it also be in this world, a good share.
Stu Trivax: Well thank you. I’m counting on both.
Jacobson: Okay, bye, Stu. Let’s go to Reuvein Russell. Reuvein?
Reuven Russell: That’s me. Sholom Aleichem Rabbi Jacobson. How are you doing?
Jacobson: Okay. This is great because I think most of my friends are comedians. Reuven Russell, for the listening audience, is an entertainer. I hear that you’re also known as “Koko the Clown.” Is that your pseudonym?
Russell: I do that for kids, that’s right.
Jacobson: Or did you begin first as Koko and then turn into Reuven Russell or the other way around?
Russell: Well you should know, I’m calling you right now from Milford, CT, from the home of my mother and father, and my father happens to be Joey Russell. I owe anything I say that gets a laugh to him, because in a sense I’m just like a nice Jewish boy going into his father’s business.
Jacobson: That can get a laugh.
Russell: That’s it. He’s been making people laugh a lot longer than I have.
Jacobson: So tell me. You’re a comedian, a clown, an actor. You’ve done serious work as well, correct?
Jacobson: When you’re living real life, real life is inconsistent: some moments you can be serious, tomorrow something’s funny. But in acting, how do you elicit those two polar extremes?
Russell: The truth is, I think we try to find humor in everything. I mean, first of all, people say that my name alone, Reuven Russell, well they say, what kind of a name is Russell for a nice Jewish boy? And I tell them that my name wasn’t originally Russell. My father was born Phillip Feitelberg, and before he was married, he changed it to Joey Russell, also for stage purposes, because in those days, it wasn’t the in thing like it is now. Now you have your Jerry Seinfelds and your Paul Reisers. Now to be ethnic is okay, but back in the times of the Second World War, you know, “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a big hand for the comedian, Phillip Feitelberg.” It wasn’t such a great thing.
So he changed it to Joey Russell. So I’m Reuven Russell, and when anyone ever comes up to me with the last name Russell and asks if we’re related, I say, “I don’t know, what was your name before you changed it?”
So that’s it. But I think a lot of times in life, especially we Jews, don’t have a lot to laugh about, but I think that’s one of our strengths, that we find humor in everything.
Jacobson: So you correlate your own personal Judaism with the humor that you do?
Russell: I hope so. I mean, the comments you made at the beginning of the show of how some of our Sages would begin each class with a joke, and what the Zohar says, I couldn’t say it better myself. I try. We have to treat life seriously, but you also have to have a sense of humor, because I heard a great saying, “You don’t stop laughing when you get old, you get old when you stop laughing.”
Jacobson: That’s very good. So you shouldn’t get old.
Russell: I hope. By the way, Stu and I have worked together many times in Los Angeles and in New York. I heard him speak about going to the old age homes. Most comedians find themselves at one time or another in some sort of an old age home.
I just got back from Florida. You want to talk about old age? The average age was deceased. I saw a man sitting next to his widow.
Jacobson: Did you ever resurrect the dead with your humor?
Russell: I didn’t, but I’m learning that comedy on radio is not the same as live. But that’s okay.
Jacobson: No question. You know, they say that some people have a face for radio, and I guess it’s the same thing with humor. Tell me, I was always amazed as a kid, I don’t know if it’s a myth, by that view of the weeping clown; that the clowns in life are usually the most tragic figures. And in a way their humor is almost like a compensation, a cover-up—like a mask they wear that really hides very deep anguish within.
Russell: Okay, now you’re hitting below the belt, Rabbi Jacobson.
Russell: You have to hit me below the belt on live radio. The torment. The torment I go through every day just to tell a joke.
I guess some of it’s true. I try not to dwell on the negative. I try to always accentuate the positive. You know, I try not to analyze it too much, because once you start to analyze it, I think, it can all go down the drain.
So there may be some truth to that. I mean, if you look at all your great comedians over time, most of them were Jewish. Milton Berle, and you know I have a whole list of names: Berlinger, Red Buttons was Aaron Schwat, Joey Bishop, none of these were their real names, and these are all Jews from Brooklyn, most of the time.
Jacobson: Not to mention Charlie Chaplin. The Marx Brothers.
Russell: That’s right. So you know one after the other. And could you say that there was torment, tragedy? Perhaps. But I would never tell anybody to look for the tragedy in their lives in order to be funny, do you know what I mean?
Jacobson: Of course.
Russell: But if someone came to me and said, “Look, I’m feeling a little bit blue,” I would say, “Let’s have some laughs.” So there is some correlation I guess. I’m not a big student of the analysis of it but I do know there is some correlation.
Jacobson: There was a French philosopher, Voltaire (I don’t know if I should cite him on a show called Toward a Meaningful Life), but he said once that G-d is the greatest comedian whose audience forgot to laugh. What do you think about that one?
Russell: Why did the audience forget to laugh?
Jacobson: They didn’t realize that life essentially is G-d’s comedy in a way. He meant it probably in a derogatory fashion, but it does say in the Talmud that life in a way is a drama, a play. Not that G-d is playing without our lives, but there’s a certain joy and laughter that it elicits. What do you think?
Russell: Well you know something? I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I missed the very beginning of your program so I’ll just ask you before I mention this thought. Did you happen to mention the little saying from the Talmud, believe me I’m not a genius of where it is, but in Taanis 22 I believe, did you happen to mention where it talks about the little story of the jesters?
Jacobson: Actually I did. Where they have a share in the World to Come, right?
Russell: Correct. “Who here has a share in the World to Come?” That’s right. So a lot of people mention that to me and I say, very good, that’s nice, but in the meantime they always say, you’re only as good as your last show, so if I don’t make the people laugh tomorrow, thank you very much for my portion in the World to Come, but I got to pay the rent, you know what I mean?
Jacobson: Well, that’s a good halachic question, you can ask that of a Rabbinic authority, that in case you don’t make someone smile with your humor, do you still get a share in the World to Come? I don’t know if the title is enough, you probably have to …
Russell: Right. So maybe G-d is not only a comedian, He’s also a booking agent.
Jacobson: Well, the topic that I want to address later on the show is, does G-d have a sense of humor? When you read the Bible, for instance, the Torah, you see G-d is angry, wrathful, and you never find G-d smiling. At least in the Bible you don’t.
Russell: Well, you know, my name is Reuven Yitzchok. And you’re the rabbi here, not me, but we know the name Reuven, Yaakov’s oldest son, came from the words “look at my son,” and Yitzchok came from the word “tzchok” to laugh. So I tell people I was named Reuven Yitzchok, “Look at my son, the comedian.”
Jacobson: Very good. Is your father around, by the way?
Russell: Is he around? He’s right here. I told him, Dad, I can put you on the phone. He says, how much time does he want? I said, “I don’t know. Maybe you’ll talk 3-4 minutes. He said, ‘I bow that long.’
Jacobson: Does he want to say something? Tell him we have hundreds of thousands of listeners.
Russell: If you want me to put him on, I’ll put him on. And I’ll just say one last thing before I go. You know, we’re in the middle of the Omer now, and if you don’t mind me giving you a free plug, your book and little resource guide is the best thing that’s ever been written about the Omer. If nobody has it they have to go get it. It costs very little—I have not been observant all my life and I learned, when I was studying recently in Kollel in Morristown, New Jersey, that when you go and you ask someone what day is today of the Omer, Jews never say, “Today is…” What do they say? “Yesterday was…”
And there are many different reasons for that which you can ask your rabbi about. So when I first learned about this, I went home and told my wife I was very excited that I learned something new. I think she took it a step too far though because when I came home the next day and said, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” she said, “Last night was chicken.”
My father’s right here. I’m going to put him on.
Jacobson: Reuven, thank you very much. Keep making people smile.
Russell: Amen, amen, and let’s make a date same time next year for this talk show, but let’s do it in Yerushalayim with the Beis HaMikdosh.
Jacobson: And you’ll be the top humorist.
Russell: Oh boy, those are big shoes to fill. I’ll second the headline under my Dad.
Jacobson: What’s your father’s name?
Russell: The one and only Joey Russell, right here.
Joey Russell: You are Rabbi Jacobson? The begeista, in drei un dreisik yor, I give you an extra 13 years because of inflation and it shouldn’t happen suddenly. I was very pleased—I heard of you but we’ve never met.
Jacobson: Well here we are, meeting on the air. And there are many people listening to our meeting here.
Joey Russell: Halevai, why not? I’m the last of the dinosaurs. The Wall St. Journal wrote that article about me.
Jacobson: Really? What did they say?
Joey Russell: The last of the dinosaurs. Because years ago when you had 300 places in the Catskills—you know, you’re too young to remember that I think—
Jacobson: I know the Catskills, the Borscht Belt, right?
Joey Russell: There used to be 300 places. Can you believe it?
Jacobson: And you did them all?
Joey Russell: I don’t know. The week after Pesach you’d get your bookings for 100-110 shows and you’d go up and you’d book one of the ski villages, because in the summer they don’t ski. And you’d be there. And today, nothing.
But I was in England, in London, I did two Bnei Brith shows, and a show at the Marble Arch Synagogue. Do you speak Yiddish?
Jacobson: I do, but not everybody in the listening audience does.
Jacobson: So how did you get into humor?
Joey Russell: My real name is Phillip. I guess Reuven told you this. My name was Feivel. When I was four years old, I remember somebody called me, Feivel the Teivel, because I studied, not in a yeshivah, but I got a yichus. Did you ever hear of the alov hashalom, the great Rabbi, Eliezer Silver?
Jacobson: Of course.
Joey Russell: He was in Springfield, MA where I was born and raised. Ani ben harav Lubavitch. When Lubavitch was like oy gevalt, you know, if papa made $400 a year in the shenadar he had to drive a little fruit truck. It was a big living. But Rabbi Eliezer Silver, a”h, you heard of him?
His son is a rabbi in Harrisburg, did you know that? And there’s a great story about Rabbi Silver. It seems that he had an urgent call and he had to run to the airport. He had a private driver at all times. And the driver was speeding. If you know, the airport in Cincinnati is actually in Covington, Kentucky, and he’s speeding over that great big bridge over the Ohio River and they were pulled over by a state trooper. And as he’s talking to the driver, the driver says, “Sir, do you know who I’ve got in the back seat of this car?”
He says, “Who is it?”
He says, “The chief rabbi, one of the great rabbis of the United States.”
And Rabbi Silver hollers out, “And don’t forget Canada also. Isn’t that great?
Jacobson: He must have been very humble!
Joey Russell: I remember, he always wore a top hat. Even in those days we’re talking 60 years ago.
Jacobson: So how did you get into humor? Did Rabbi Silver encourage you to become a…
Joey Russell: They used to call me “Feivel the Teivel.” Who knows how? It’s a gift from the Ribbono Shel Olom (Master of the World).
Jacobson: And your father was also a comedian?
Joey Russell: I don’t know. In those days they didn’t have time for comedy. A joke now and then. It wasn’t easy to be a Lubavitch Rabbi in the 1920’s and 30’s.
Jacobson: Listen, Joey, you should feel good and healthy, and you should continue to make people laugh.
Joey Russell: Well, I do something serious too. I do a cable show in Connecticut only called, “Jewish Forum.” It’s on all the cable shows in Connecticut. I had Rabbi Avigdor, an Orthodox Rabbi with a boys’ choir. It was wonderful. Rabbi Wainhouse, another rabbi who plays the guitar and sings Yiddish love songs.
Jacobson: Wow, this is something. I mean you really surround yourself with a lot of rabbis. What can I tell you? Listen, Joey, I have to go to a station ID here.
Joey Russell: A commercial? Make some money. Listen, Rabbi Jacobson, maybe someday we shall meet. You have your own shtelle, your own shul?
Jacobson: I run the Meaningful Life Center, it’s an educational organization in New York City.
Joey Russell: For who?
Jacobson: For everyone. If you’re ever in New York, I give a class every Wednesday night on the Upper West Side, 8pm, and I welcome you, if you’re ever in New York. And tell Reuven and we’ll get together. Okay?
Anyway, thank you very much, Joey and Reuven. It’s very good to hear that it runs in the family.
(Announcement break about ways to contact Rabbi Jacobson or the Meaningful Life Center. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www. meaningfullife.com; phone: 1-800-3MEANINGS, mail: Meaningful Life Center, Suite 303, 788 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11225)
Okay, before I go to the next call, I just want to pose the question, “Does G-d have a sense of humor?” When you do read the Bible, and many people look at the Torah and religion in general, and particularly Judaism, as being much more of a religion that’s driven by law and order, by wrath—some would say anger, retribution, punitiveness—it doesn’t seem that there’s a light spiritedness, even though you have these incidents that I addressed earlier. But what about G-d? Does G-d ever smile? And can we make G-d smile? Where does He smile and when does He smile?
Think about that while I go to the phones. We have Liba on the air.
Caller: Hi Rabbi Jacobson. I am not a comedian, stand up or sit down, I’m just a fan of Toward a Meaningful Life, but my thoughts relate more to the beginning of the show. I really can’t answer about G-d’s humor, I don’t know that much about Him in that way. But I have found that if you eliminate an objection to something with humor, you eliminate the objection. For example, when I started studying Chassidic philosophy, one family member said, “You know, you’re being brainwashed.” Now this could have become an argument, but instead I decided to use humor and I said, “Quite frankly, the condition my brain is in, don’t you think it could use a little washing?”
He laughed. It eliminated the objection and he never brought it up again.
Jacobson: Maybe his brain could use some washing?
Caller: But see, I don’t want to put someone else down with humor.
Jacobson: No, I understand.
Caller: I give talks and I don’t see. I’m totally blind. And the first thing I’ll say to an audience to relax them is, “Shalom. It’s good to see you.” And it makes them laugh, it makes them relax. They see I’m not taking myself too intensely. And so I find humor relaxes me and it relaxes others and then I can get on to more serious things because they’re relaxed and therefore they’ll be more receptive to what I have to say.
As far as in the Bible, I only know the King James version because that’s the only one that’s on tape, there is a place where they were offering up sacrifices to their god, and their god wasn’t coming up and taking the sacrifices and Elijah said, “Where is your god? Why isn’t he taking your sacrifice? Has he gone to the bathroom? And that always cracks me up. I don’t know what it says in a kosher, but to me, if we’re made in the image and likeness of G-d, and we have a sense of humor, then He must have a sense of humor. Where do we get it from?
Jacobson: That’s a very good segue. Thank you, Liba.
That’s a perfect segue, because the truth is, in the Kabbalah and Jewish thought in general, Jewish philosophy, the idea that a human being is created in the Divine image has far-reaching implications that affect our lives much more than we may even think. It basically means that every part of our lives, every part of our personalities, our psyches, whether it’s the way we smile or the way we cry, is in some way a reflection of the Divine in our lives.
And therefore, exactly as Liba just put it, if we have humor, it means G-d must have humor. And vice verse. Because it is a partnership. Life is a partnership.
Someone did ask me this question which is what provoked me to ask the question here on the air. Someone asked, “How come you never find G-d smiling in the Bible?” And I thought about it, because the fact is, definitely with the story of Isaac where Sarah laughed at how she could possibly have a child at her age, and there are other smiling stories, but you don’t have laughing on G-d’s side. G-d is very serious in the Bible.
So then something struck me. In the Talmud there’s an interesting story. The Talmud tells that there was a disagreement in heaven between two heavenly academies. One was called the mesifta d’rekiya, which is the Heavenly Academy, and the other one was called the mesifta d’Kudshu Brichu, the Academy of G-d. They were studying Torah and there was as debate that they couldn’t resolve, so they decided to go down to earth and ask a scholar in one of the academies that studies Torah, in one of the yeshivahs down here in Israel or Babylon. They ask Rabba bar Nachmeni, who was a great Sage, and he thought about it and the way he resolved the issue was not like G-d’s opinion but it was like the opinion of some of the other students in the heavenly academy, the angels.
So it’s just fascinating to have the idea that a human being can disagree with G-d. Then the Talmud concludes with a fascinating statement. It says, “Then G-d smiled and said, ‘natzchuni, bonei natzchuni,’ ‘You have prevailed, my child, you have prevailed.’”
In other words, G-d smiled in satisfaction that his child, meaning this scholar on earth, with his own wisdom, was able to come to a conclusion that prevailed even over G-d. So it made me think that perhaps the reason there’s no humor in the actual Bible is that the Bible is a book, a blueprint for life. In blueprints, when you read a computer manual, there’s no humor there, because it’s telling you basically the rules of how to live your life. Do this, don’t do that. As I discussed in these shows, the Bible is not just a set of rules, it’s actually an operator’s manual for life. An operator’s manual saying, “This is the healthiest and best way to live your life.”
So in there, there’s no real room for any variations. So it’s a book of law and order essentially. And G-d, in a sense, bound himself to that structure. Therefore you don’t find the concept of smiling or laughter, because if you look at life itself, when do we smile, when do we laugh? When something changes. It says, “taanug tmidi aino taanug,” “consistent pleasure is not pleasurable.”
A laugh comes when there’s some type of variation, when there’s a change, a novelty. You know, you don’t laugh all the time. There are some people who do, I guess, but laughter comes from something out of the ordinary. You see something a little weird, a little off-beat, and it makes you laugh.
In the Bible, nothing is off-beat, because it’s really describing life as it’s meant to be lived. However, in this exchange and interaction where a human being, through his own initiative, is able to come up with an idea, a concept that can even challenge G-d, that makes G-d smile.
In other words, it is in our power to tickle G-d. A human being has the ability, the power, to make G-d cry and to make G-d smile. And I think that’s a beautiful, powerful concept in the partnership of human existence, the human condition, the human drama, that we aren’t just subjects on the receiving end, we actually can make G-d smile. Unfortunately, the other extreme is that we can also make G-d cry.
But we have that ability to interact with G-d. When G-d created the universe, He bound Himself with us, and that’s why you find at times that G-d smiles. You find in the Talmud and in other places that G-d has that element of having the ability to smile, which of course, reflects back to us, that we also need to have that attribute, of sometimes opening up with something that’s lighter, like a release point.
When Moses finally went up to G-d and prevailed upon Him to forgive the people for sinning with the Golden Calf, there’s a certain inner satisfaction. It’s similar to a parent and a child, where a child may do something to transgress, and the parent gets upset. But you love your child so much that ultimately if the child is sincere, the child can elicit in you a deeper compassion, a deeper way to forgive, a deeper energy, and at the end of it you end up smiling. You see that your child has come around and is able to reach you in that way, and it makes you smile ultimately.
I think that’s a very healthy way of parenting, that though there are times where discipline is required, we have to understand that discipline is also an extension of love, and there’s no greater satisfaction for a parent whose child makes him smile—both out of joy or through coming through an experience where you see your child has learned through hard or difficult times.
Let’s go to Mark on the air.
Caller: Hey, first time listener, just was scanning the dial looking for another station but you’re really interesting. I’ll be a listener forever!
Jacobson: I hope that’s on a serious note, because this week’s show is supposed to be a humorous one.
Caller: But actually, I only want to say one thing. Two things actually. Everything is funny. Everything is serious. I knew a gentleman who was a Holocaust survivor—that man could laugh and joke about something as extreme as the Holocaust and find humor in it. I mean it wasn’t like the repulsive type of humor that bordered on anti-Semitism, obviously, it was just making lightness of such a heavy thing. I realized that anything could be treated lightly.
Jacobson: Well, he has that right to be able to do that.
Caller: Right. I mean I wouldn’t make jokes about something that severe.
Jacobson: Well, it could both make you cry and make you smile. It’s very much in context of what we’re saying here and I appreciate what you’re sharing.
People like that give you a lot of strength, because what they realize is that ultimately life is more profound than how seriously we take it or how humorously we take it. There’s something else going on.
Caller: One more thing, though. I do joke a lot, and it seems like when you’re joking, people think you’re not serious. And it’s a combination of both. For example, if someone’s really slow at work, I’ll say, “What are you waiting for? A Jewish president?” Something along that line. And because I mix humor in it, people don’t take it seriously. But what I really mean is that they are slow. I’m not that mad at them.
Jacobson: Okay, but in fairness Mark, there are people who are sometimes very cynical, and they’re always using humor as an escape or defense to hide behind. Humor, as I was discussing, can be a very powerful tool of strength and bonding for people, but it can also be something that people hide behind, like they’re always making a joke, everything’s funny.
Caller: But sometimes it’s saying, “I am mad at you. But I’m not that mad at you.” But the people take it like, if the person’s joking, they’re not mad at them at all.
Jacobson: Well, I appreciate that. So please do listen and tell your friends about the show.
Caller: Okay. I’ll even tell people I don’t like as well about the show! Why do people always say, “Tell your friends”? Why? You don’t want people who are my enemies listening?
Jacobson: Good point. Okay, thank you.
You’re listening to Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson, as we wind down here in the last few minutes of the show.
So what is the Hebrew word for laughter or smile? The Hebrew word is schok. M’sachek means to smile. Bedicha is another word, which means a joke. Or as I said earlier, badchan you often hear at weddings, is a humorous or comic entertainer. The Talmud uses the word badchan when it comes to the ones who will have a share in the World to Come, as in the story I mentioned earlier. Schok is similar to tzchok, tzchok means laughter, and schok means smile and sometimes it’s stated in the positive sense where we talk about Az yimalei schok penoi, which is a verse in the Bible which says that when the Messiah will come, when the world will come to a deeper perfection, that’s when we’ll be able to completely smile. As long as we live in this world where there’s even one person suffering, no matter how good your life is, you can’t smile completely.
Yet there’s a place for humor even in our lives today, but it’s a humor that’s connected to something Divine. To plagiarize, the Divine comedy, so to speak. But to use humor to grow is something that is important to do. At the same time, ultimate joy will only be there when the entire world experiences joy, because with the human race, being one organism, as long as one part of it is ailing, all of us are affected by it.
There’s so much to say about humor. I’m sure if we had more time and we got more calls, we’d be able to discuss this further, so we will talk about it some more on the website. Your comments, your thoughts, and your suggestions if you wish can also be posted there. I did receive an email from a person who comes to my class. I didn’t ask his permission so I won’t say his name, but he did write an interesting compendium of humor within Torah, and I appreciate that so I thank him for that.
I’d also like to make an announcement since I do give a class every Wednesday night, at 8:00pm, 346 W. 89th St., corner Riverside Drive and you’re all welcome to come to the class. It’s a combination of serious, humor, sometimes better sometimes worse. Sometimes you tell a joke, when you’re speaking publicly and people don’t laugh, so one of the tricks of the trade that I’ll share with you is, you can always tell your audience, okay, I know not to use this joke again next time. That usually gets a laugh. If you don’t get a laugh there, maybe you should quit speaking.
I always want to thank the sponsors of this and other shows: Robert Klein, Sharon Gans and other supporters. These shows are made possible through your donations and your sponsorships and please call us to find out how you can help at 1-800-3MEANING, 1-800-363-2646.
Finally, humor is a powerful tool in our lives. When it’s used in a Divine way, not to hurt others, not to hurt ourselves, and not as an escape, it can be a type of release that helps people lighten up. Try it out. Next time you speak to someone and there’s anger or some type of misunderstanding, sometimes through a humorous way of approaching it, is a light way that can diffuse things.
May we all experience only laughter in our lives, and even when there are times where there’s a dip in our experiences, may that too turn into something that makes us smile.
This has been Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. See you next Sunday.