“Being a teenager is like the chicken pox,” my teenage son observed watching his teenage sister's theatrics in the days before the chicken pox vaccine; and the way to become inoculated was to actually catch it; “everyone has to go through it.”
A friend stood in front of the mirror before her date was coming to pick her up, applying lipstick to her cheeks because she realized she had run out of blusher and needed something to give color to her cheeks. Her inquisitive little brother, whom nobody had successfully gotten to bed because he was the youngest of seven girls, said indignantly, “Esti, that's not how you use lipstick!”
“Then how?” she teased him.
“It goes on your eyes!” he announced triumphantly.
“I told you that my sister got engaged last night and I could not study,” a student told her teacher. I don't think I deserve a zero on this surprise quiz” She shows her therapist a blank page that has a large zero scribbled in red at the top of the page.
“I know,” said the teacher coldly, “but it's the lowest I could give you.”
You laughed at the two first incidents, but gasped at the third, right? Although the third is actually a pretty funny joke if a student says it with a bit of a different twist at a chagigah as part of a comedy skit; which is where I actually picked it up. And the first one would not be that funny if it would be followed by that boy's sister crying, “Mommy! Tell him to stop already!” Or, if the second story would be about a special needs child, and the nasty sister repeating the story says something like, “He says such stupid things. He doesn't get it.”
Jokes are a funny thing. And sometimes not so.
Because sometimes the lines between simcha, happiness, and leitzanus, cynicism, are blurred. And sometimes the lines between teasing and bullying are hazy. And sometimes what sounds like a compliment can be hurtful. Because sometimes jokes turn bad; and some jokes, even when everyone laughs, are not funny at all.
In a transcribed lecture by Rabbi Frand, he spoke about why Hashem needed to make the miracle of Yitzchok Avinu's appearance exactly as his father's Avraham. Rashi cites the Midrash that said it was to counteract the cynics, who scoffed at Sarah's pregnancy with Yitzchok because they said it occurred while she was in the house of Avimelech and not with Avraham.
So what? wonder many commentaries. So what if they scoffed?
But that is the power of the cynic, says Rav Gifter; his ability to destroy anything good or holy or lofty with a single well-delivered line. Too much was riding on this child, Yitzchok, to allow his lineage to be undermined; and nothing short of a miracle could counteract the cynicism of the leitzanei haDor.
The Mesilas Yesharim writes, continues Rabbi Frand, how in the military, slimy grease prevented arrows from piercing a shield; so too, arrow of mussar cannot penetrate the heart if there is the slime of leitzanus, of cynicism, blocking it.
When I was in seminary, far from home and the restraining hand of our peers and mentors, I was a part of a little clique made up of cynics. I can never tell you who they were, because today they are educators and leaders; but suffice to say that we were a nasty little bunch 30 years ago. Not really. Only in our cynicism. But looking back today, that only was enough. Enough to have the menaheles of our seminary, when deciding who to accept from our school the following year, made it very clear that anyone with a hint of cynicism was not welcome.
We thought we were funny (we were, but funny does not excuse the damage wrought).
In the elevator of our dormitory, girls generally plastered signs all over. Stuff like, “Whoever lost money in a pink wallet please come to Room #202.” Or, “Lashon Hora sefarim available for borrowing in Room #308.” Or, sometimes, simply a sign meant to give chizuk, like, “Eizahu gibbor, hakovesh es yitzro,” and that would be followed by an exhortion to refrain from Lashon Hora in the elevator. Nice stuff. But so nebby (our word for uncool in the olden days), that we were overcome with cynicism every time one of those signs went up.
It was inevitable that after a late night, sleep deprived bout of studying, we would not act upon our cynical nature, and the next morning the elevator was plastered with signs we had diligently worked on (instead of studying). “Whoever lost an asimon (coin used in the olden days for the phone; worth about 10 cents, which in those days was also worth almost nothing), please come to Room #709.” and, “Whoever sleeps and does not eat,” proclaimed another sign, “it is as if he has eaten and not slept.” It was signed “Vashrahap;” an acronym (if I remember correctly) Va'ad Shomrei HaPnimiya (the organization that watches the dormitory).
Funny? Yes. (Especially riding up and down the elevator all day the next day unobtrusively, listening the earnest endeavors of our classmates seriously puzzling over the meaning of these signs, and wondering how-with all their learning of mefarshim, they had never heard of the Vashrahap.) But at what cost? Our cynicism destroyed something of seminary that year.
Because Miriam attended a voluntary shiur one night given by the menaheles, and came back subdued. “She spoke about leitzanus,” she said when she met the rest of us who did not attend. “The menaheles cried,” she said, shocked.
Miriam was too shaken to say more, but it curbed me the rest of the year.
So what's with the Purim Torah? What's with the Purim Spiels that have become popular in yeshivos?
For the most part, a Purim Torah is a playful way of reaching absurd conclusions; but through displaying an extraordinary grasp of Jewish knowledge, and a sharp mind that uses Talmudic logic and linguistic tricks. The Purim Shpiels, although they are satiric parodies of well known personalities both in life and in Tanach, are designed to poke fun only in an affectionate manner. Purim Torahs or Shpiels that cross the line between gentle humor and mockery are leitzanus; the slimy substance that blocks the spirit of Purim.
And that is also relevant to Purim Shtick.
Bachurim, and even girls, wait to play Purim shtick on teachers, on rebbeim, on classmates. There are often weeks of preparation and supplies brought in. There is that air of anticipation. Of fun.
There are halachos that need to be taken into account when preparing Purim shtik. There are the halachic prohibitions of nezikin, physical damage to property and/or belongings; of hurting someone with lashon hora, ona'as devarim, or hamalbin pnei chaveiro, shaming/embarrassing another.
So what's up with funny? What's the difference between humor that helps and humor that harms?
The truth is, to cultivate an impelling sense of humor, you need cultivate the ability to be sensitive to humor. How?
Don't use your humor to laugh at others. Don't allow others to express toxic humor.
That's a large order, I know.
For people whose humor is a defense against their own insecurities, it takes a lot of courage to use humor to rise above their insecurities rather than use it bitingly to knock down others so they can look taller.
It's an even more difficult task to ask a child in school to speak up to those who undermine a teacher with their mockery, to stand up to those who plan the Purim Shtiks that are not Purim'dik at all.
It may be important to teach kids (and adults) the difference between laughing at others, and laughing with others.
Often, the easiest way to understand the difference between good-natured teasing and fun versus bullying and hurt is the relationship that exists between the two people where the humor is enacted. That favorite teacher who walks into the classroom and everyone's seats are turned backwards is wonderful, loving fun in sharp contrast to the same action by a class whose teacher has long since lost control of the classroom and struggles giving over lessons each day.
So laughing AT others is about contempt and insensitivity. It's about destroying confidence through underhanded put-downs, subtle or not. It is about excluding people from the humor. It is offensive, divisive, and sarcastic. It is simply cruel.
I remember a principal once calling me because she was looking for teachers to hire. I recommended a teacher I respected highly and who I thought would be perfect for her school.
“No, Mindy,” she said regretfully, “I heard she uses sarcasm in her classes and that is not a good fit for our school.”
I want my daughter in that school.
As a therapist, I am careful with my humor. I tread with caution. Although humor can be healing in the therapy room, without a solid therapeutic alliance, it often backfires. (And then clients say, “You never smile.” or, “You are pretty funny in your articles, but I never see it in here.” It's a no-win situation. Sigh.)
Laughing WITH others, is about caring and empathy; building confidence and including others. It is supportive, bringing people closer together, leads to positive interactions, often an ice-breaker, and nourishing.
Laughing at others is reinforcing stereotypes; laughing with others is joining with each other in our universal quirks.
There are research studies analyzing the science of humor, believe it or not.
One study was developed to examine humor in the wake of a tragedy. It takes 36 days after a tragedy, according to the McGraw study out of University of Colorado, for jokes about it to become funny. And as 100 days pass, the humor of those same jokes wane. Sounds awful, no? But looking at it from a sociological perspective, it takes humor to stay resilient through a tragedy. After 9/11, for example, there was a no-comedy zone in which it seemed inappropriate to ever laugh again. There was a relief when jokes were bred from within the tragedy; jokes that did not belittle, G-d forbid, the tragedy, but spoke of the resilience to smile amid the horror.
Dr. Joel Goodman, founder and director of the Humor Project, and organization that focuses on the positive power of humor, speaks and write at length about humor. He himself uses witty lines to convey his messages, one of them being, “Look before you lip,” and another aptly saying, “Let us move from roasting and laughing at others to toasting and laughing with others,”
Humor is a tool—or a weapon. Use it wisely; use it well. Jokes can heal or harm. And we know that we are not joking when we say that.
note: this was originally published in Purim issue of Binah Magazine
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