Avner Ziv, Humor as a Social Corrective
Stories of this sort are told when a group or nation finds itself under occupation or oppression without any means of fighting back. In such cases, humor is an instrument of self-respect and the spirit of freedom. The French philosopher Penjon has written, "Laughter is nothing but an expression of the freedom which we experience or long for. Always and everywhere, laughter is the echo of freedom."
Stephanie Newman, What Can Laughter do for Social Justice?
In cases where the people laughing are more oppressed than those they’re laughing at, the solidarity can bring with it a sense of power. As Jazmine Hughes wrote in The New Republic, “By making fun of white people, people of color can, in a small way, push back against stereotypes, opposing racial humor by inverting it.” Hughes gives an example: “If you are a black person in the 1800s, and there’s a white man who owns you, beats you, and tears your family apart, then it’s totally fine to crack a joke about his waistcoat to your friends.” If you’re a woman, you’re allowed to make fun of the men whose stares creep you out as you’re walking home...
There are real emotional benefits to group laughter, as well. Laughing with friends for 15 minutes can raise pain tolerance levels by 10%. Whether it’s women like me laughing at Fox News commentators with Jessica Williams, or people of color cracking up with Aziz Ansari at white people’s ignorance, the opportunity to make fun of an oppressive force is cathartic. Considering how many people feel oppressed by Trump’s presidency, it’s no surprise that viewers are finding ablution through the late-night skewering of Donald Trump by Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert, two comedians whose ratings have surged since Inauguration Day.
A Tale of Two Laughs
(א) וַיְהִ֣י אַבְרָ֔ם בֶּן־תִּשְׁעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְתֵ֣שַׁע שָׁנִ֑ים וַיֵּרָ֨א יקוק אֶל־אַבְרָ֗ם וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ אֲנִי־אֵ֣ל שַׁדַּ֔י הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י וֶהְיֵ֥ה תָמִֽים׃ (ב) וְאֶתְּנָ֥ה בְרִיתִ֖י בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֑ךָ וְאַרְבֶּ֥ה אוֹתְךָ֖ בִּמְאֹ֥ד מְאֹֽד׃ (ג) וַיִּפֹּ֥ל אַבְרָ֖ם עַל־פָּנָ֑יו וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אִתּ֛וֹ אֱלֹקִ֖ים לֵאמֹֽר׃ (ד) אֲנִ֕י הִנֵּ֥ה בְרִיתִ֖י אִתָּ֑ךְ וְהָיִ֕יתָ לְאַ֖ב הֲמ֥וֹן גּוֹיִֽם׃ (ה) וְלֹא־יִקָּרֵ֥א ע֛וֹד אֶת־שִׁמְךָ֖ אַבְרָ֑ם וְהָיָ֤ה שִׁמְךָ֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם כִּ֛י אַב־הֲמ֥וֹן גּוֹיִ֖ם נְתַתִּֽיךָ׃ (ו) וְהִפְרֵתִ֤י אֹֽתְךָ֙ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֔ד וּנְתַתִּ֖יךָ לְגוֹיִ֑ם וּמְלָכִ֖ים מִמְּךָ֥ יֵצֵֽאוּ׃ (ז) וַהֲקִמֹתִ֨י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֜י בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֗ךָ וּבֵ֨ין זַרְעֲךָ֧ אַחֲרֶ֛יךָ לְדֹרֹתָ֖ם לִבְרִ֣ית עוֹלָ֑ם לִהְי֤וֹת לְךָ֙ לֵֽאלֹקִ֔ים וּֽלְזַרְעֲךָ֖ אַחֲרֶֽיךָ׃..(טו) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹקִים֙ אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתְּךָ֔ לֹא־תִקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמָ֖הּ שָׂרָ֑י כִּ֥י שָׂרָ֖ה שְׁמָֽהּ׃ (טז) וּבֵרַכְתִּ֣י אֹתָ֔הּ וְגַ֨ם נָתַ֧תִּי מִמֶּ֛נָּה לְךָ֖ בֵּ֑ן וּבֵֽרַכְתִּ֙יהָ֙ וְהָֽיְתָ֣ה לְגוֹיִ֔ם מַלְכֵ֥י עַמִּ֖ים מִמֶּ֥נָּה יִהְיֽוּ׃ (יז) וַיִּפֹּ֧ל אַבְרָהָ֛ם עַל־פָּנָ֖יו וַיִּצְחָ֑ק וַיֹּ֣אמֶר בְּלִבּ֗וֹ הַלְּבֶ֤ן מֵאָֽה־שָׁנָה֙ יִוָּלֵ֔ד וְאִ֨ם־שָׂרָ֔ה הֲבַת־תִּשְׁעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה תֵּלֵֽד׃ (יח) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹקִ֑ים ל֥וּ יִשְׁמָעֵ֖אל יִחְיֶ֥ה לְפָנֶֽיךָ׃ (יט) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹקִ֗ים אֲבָל֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתְּךָ֗ יֹלֶ֤דֶת לְךָ֙ בֵּ֔ן וְקָרָ֥אתָ אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ יִצְחָ֑ק וַהֲקִמֹתִ֨י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֥י אִתּ֛וֹ לִבְרִ֥ית עוֹלָ֖ם לְזַרְע֥וֹ אַחֲרָֽיו׃ (כ) וּֽלְיִשְׁמָעֵ֘אל שְׁמַעְתִּיךָ֒ הִנֵּ֣ה ׀ בֵּרַ֣כְתִּי אֹת֗וֹ וְהִפְרֵיתִ֥י אֹת֛וֹ וְהִרְבֵּיתִ֥י אֹת֖וֹ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד שְׁנֵים־עָשָׂ֤ר נְשִׂיאִם֙ יוֹלִ֔יד וּנְתַתִּ֖יו לְג֥וֹי גָּדֽוֹל׃
(1) When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless. (2) I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous.” (3) Abram threw himself on his face; and God spoke to him further, (4) “As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. (5) And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations. (6) I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you. (7) I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come...(15) And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. (16) I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her.” (17) Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?” (18) And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!” (19) God said, “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come. (20) As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation.
What's their Laughter All About?
ויפל אברהם על פניו ויצחק זֶה תִּ"אֻ, לְשׁוֹן שִׂמְחָה, וַחֲדִי וְשֶׁל שָׂרָה לְשׁוֹן מָחוֹךְ; לָמַדְתָּ, שֶׁאַבְרָהָם הֶאֱמִין וְשָׂמַח, וְשָׂרָה לֹא הֶאֱמִינָה וֶלִגְלְגָה, וְזֶהוּ שֶׁהִקְפִּיד הַקָּבָּ"ה עַל שָׂרָה וְלֹא הִקְפִּיד עַל אַבְרָהָם:
And Abraham fell upon his face and laughed. Onkelos translates this (Yitzchack) in the sense of joy: "and he rejoiced"; but (the Vatitzchack in Genesis 18:12) of Sarah to denote laughter. (From this) you learn that Abraham believed and rejoiced, but Sarah did not believe and sneered. Therefore the Holy One Blessed Be He was angry with Sarah, but He was not angry with Abraham.
(1) בקרבה [SARAH LAUGHED] WITHIN HERSELF — She reflected on her physical condition, saying, “Is it possible that this womb shall bear a child, that these dried-up breasts shall give forth milk” (Midrash Tanchuma, Shoftim 18).
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik
Jewish laughter is bound up with Jewish faith, and Abraham’s child is named for laughter because his birth inverted expectations, vindicated Abraham’s faith, and laid the foundations of a people who would confound those expectations again and again, thereby vindicating this faith throughout the generations. Which is why, for centuries, on the first day of the Days of Awe, Abraham’s children have gathered in synagogues all around the world, remembered the birth of Isaac, and beseeched Almighty God to grant them a year of life, love—and laughter.
כי הא דרבה מקמי דפתח להו לרבנן אמר מילתא דבדיחותא ובדחו רבנן ולבסוף יתיב באימתא ופתח בשמעתא
That explanation is like that practice of Rabba’s. Before he began teaching halakha to the Sages, he would say some humorous comment, and the Sages would be cheered. Ultimately, he sat in trepidation and began teaching the halakha.
אדהכי והכי אתו הנך תרי אתי א"ל הנך נמי בני עלמא דאתי נינהו אזל לגבייהו אמר להו מאי עובדייכו אמרו ליה אינשי בדוחי אנן מבדחינן עציבי אי נמי כי חזינן בי תרי דאית להו תיגרא בהדייהו טרחינן ועבדינן להו שלמא:
In the meantime, two brothers came to the marketplace. Elijah said to Rabbi Beroka: These two also have a share in the World-to-Come. Rabbi Beroka went over to the men and said to them: What is your occupation? They said to him: We are jesters, and we cheer up the depressed. Alternatively, when we see two people who have a quarrel between them, we strive to make peace. It is said that for this behavior one enjoys the profits of his actions in this world, and yet his reward is not diminished in the World-to-Come.
Humour and irony connected with the development and maintenance of healthy relationships.
The ability to laugh allows one to not take oneself and one’s opinions overly seriously and permits the consideration of other perspectives. With the inability to laugh comes an inability to acknowledge the contradictions inherent in every society and relationship. The well-timed joke shows the other party that there may be disagreement, but those differences are not insurmountable and do not necessarily spell the end of all meaningful dialogue. Laughter overcomes separateness and closure. Similarly, Avraham’s laughter took joy in the possibility of the impossible. That is why it is specifically the jesters who merit the world to come. They can inject humour into the most serious of moments and make people appreciate that great difficulties are always pregnant with hope. Perhaps laughter really is the best medicine.
Don't Get Mad; Get Glad!
Professor Meir Soloveitchik
Jews loved jokes because they expressed the idea that there is more to life than meets the eye, that a pattern is not eternally set in stone, that our expectations can be uprooted—that . . . there is a completely different way of seeing [a given] situation.
וכבר היה ר"ג ורבי אלעזר בן עזריה ורבי יהושע ורבי עקיבא מהלכין בדרך ושמעו קול המונה של רומי מפלטה [ברחוק] מאה ועשרים מיל והתחילו בוכין ורבי עקיבא משחק אמרו לו מפני מה אתה משחק אמר להם ואתם מפני מה אתם בוכים אמרו לו הללו כושיים שמשתחוים לעצבים ומקטרים לעבודת כוכבים יושבין בטח והשקט ואנו בית הדום רגלי אלקינו שרוף באש ולא נבכה אמר להן לכך אני מצחק ומה לעוברי רצונו כך לעושי רצונו על אחת כמה וכמה
Apropos tribulations of exile and hope for redemption, the Gemara relates: And it once was that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were walking along the road in the Roman Empire, and they heard the sound of the multitudes of Rome from Puteoli at a distance of one hundred and twenty mil. The city was so large that they were able to hear its tumult from a great distance. And the other Sages began weeping and Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him: For what reason are you laughing? Rabbi Akiva said to them: And you, for what reason are you weeping? They said to him: These gentiles, who bow to false gods and burn incense to idols, dwell securely and tranquilly in this colossal city, and for us, the House of the footstool of our God, the Temple, is burnt by fire, and shall we not weep? Rabbi Akiva said to them: That is why I am laughing. If for those who violate His will, the wicked, it is so and they are rewarded for the few good deeds they performed, for those who perform His will, all the more so will they be rewarded.
Relax, God Laughs Too
הקב"ה יושב ומשחק עליהן שנאמר (תהלים ב, ד) יושב בשמים ישחק וגו' א"ר יצחק אין שחוק לפני הקב"ה אלא אותו היום בלבד...והקב"ה יושב ומשחק שנאמר יושב בשמים ישחק וגו' א"ר יצחק אין לו להקב"ה שחוק אלא אותו היום בלבד איני והא אמר רב יהודה אמר רב שתים עשרה שעות הוי היום שלש הראשונות הקב"ה יושב ועוסק בתורה שניות יושב ודן את כל העולם כולו כיון שרואה שנתחייב עולם כלייה עומד מכסא הדין ויושב על כסא רחמים שלישיות יושב וזן את כל העולם כולו מקרני ראמים עד ביצי כנים רביעיות יושב ומשחק עם לויתן שנאמר (תהלים קד, כו) לויתן זה יצרת לשחק בו אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק עם בריותיו משחק ועל בריותיו אינו משחק אלא אותו היום בלבד
And the Holy One, Blessed be He, sits and makes sport, i.e., laughs or rejoices, as it is stated: “He that sits in heaven makes sport, the Lord has them in derision” (Psalms 2:4). Rabbi Yitzḥak says: There is no making sport for the Holy One, Blessed be He, but on that day alone. The Gemara asks: Is that so? Is there is no other making sport for the Holy One, Blessed be He? But doesn’t Rav Yehuda say that Rav says: There are twelve hours in the day. During the first three, the Holy One, Blessed be He, sits and engages in Torah study...During the fourth three hours, He sits and makes sport with the leviathan, as it is stated: “There is leviathan, whom You have formed to sport with” (Psalms 104:26). Evidently, God makes sport every day, not only on that one day. Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak says in explanation: He makes sport with His creations, just as He sports with the leviathan; He does not make sport of His creations but on that day alone.
§ Apropos the topic of verbal mistreatment, we learned in a mishna there (Kelim 5:10): If one cut an earthenware oven widthwise into segments, and placed sand between each and every segment, Rabbi Eliezer deems it ritually pure. Because of the sand, its legal status is not that of a complete vessel, and therefore it is not susceptible to ritual impurity. And the Rabbis deem it ritually impure, as it is functionally a complete oven. And this is known as the oven of akhnai. The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of akhnai, a snake, in this context? Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: It is characterized in that manner due to the fact that the Rabbis surrounded it with their statements like this snake, which often forms a coil when at rest, and deemed it impure. The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him. After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion? Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.
Laughing Yoga exercises