The latest Pew study of American Jewry found that almost half our people believe that having a good sense of humour is important to their Jewish identity. Sounds pretty ridiculous, almost a cop out, a way to avoid the seriousness of our commitment to our heritage.
Is having a good sense of humour a Jewish value?
Rabbi Broika the Hozan was a regular in the Bei-Lefet market. There, the prophet Elijah would frequently reveal himself to the sage.
He once asked Elijah, “Is there anyone in this market who merits the World to Come?”
He replied, “No.”
Meanwhile, two brothers showed up.
Elijah then said, “These are destined for the World to Come.”
The rabbi went over to them and asked, “What do you do?”
They replied, “We are comedians. We bring joy to sad people. And when we see two people who are arguing, we work hard to imbue them with happiness in an effort to make peace between them.”
Rashi quotes the Mishnah that teaches that the reward for making peace between people is both in this world and the next. Whatever satisfaction one receives for such kindness is akin to the interest being spun off the principal. You earn the interest or fruits of the field in this world but receive the principal or field itself in the World to Come.
Mel Brooks famously tells of how Jews became funny. Over our millennia of persecution and exile, we developed an incredible defense mechanism. We learned to laugh off those who hate us. That’s part of the secret of our survival and might explain why so many Jews believe that having a good sense of humour is integral to Jewish identity.
But no doubt there were many Jewish jokesters in the market that day when Elijah revealed himself to Rabbi Broika. Only two, however, merited the World to Come. Why? Because they used their talents not just to bring survival and redemption to themselves, but to find others who also needed survival and redemption.
A good sense of humour is part of our Jewish identity. But that doesn’t make it a Jewish value. The Jewish value is to use that sense of humour to bring joy to others and light up their lives.
You may have a great sense of humour, but if you’re not sharing it constructively with anyone else, then you have accomplished nothing. The two comedic brothers went out of their way to cheer up those who were sad and to inject humour into relationships that were suffering. As Rashi says, that is rewarding in this world, but the ultimate reward is in the World to Come.
Use humour to take the edge off aggressive people. Or to ease the pressure off a tense exchange of ideas. If you can show people how to laugh, they will stop taking themselves so seriously and stop expecting that everyone else see things their way.
Of course you need to start with your own relationships. Inject humour wherever possible. Make your spouse laugh! Make your children laugh! No relationship comes without its challenges, but the more humour you can bring to the relationship the easier it will be to overcome the more serious hurdles!