Sign In Forgot Password

Rosh Hashanah 5784: Making the World Better through Laughter

09/18/2023 10:24:49 AM


Rabbi Abigail Treu

Who remembers Norman Cousins?

Norman Cousins was a nice Jewish boy, who grew up not far from here in Union City, to become a famous journalist and author. In 1964 Norman was diagnosed with a rare and debilitating disease. His doctors gave him only a few weeks to live.

Norman did something extraordinary when he heard the news. He laughed. 

In fact, he made it a point to laugh every day.

For 30 minutes. 

Until the day he died. 

26 years after the diagnosis.

I share this story not because we are all granted miracles and extra time on this earth. I’m sharing this story because of Norman’s response. Who responds to bad news with a laugh? Who decides that laughter is going to be a part of their march into an uncertain future?

Maybe we all should. 

Weeks ago, I was all set with my sermon topic for today. I’d done my sleuthing around bookstores and blogs, and noticed just how much is being written about anger, rage, blame, our toxic culture and lack of civility. I’m collecting sources about how we all need to stop being so angry. How we need to change, to find love and forgiveness… Great. It’s writing itself. And by that, I mean that ChatGPT is writing it.  

And then, something happened. 

Actually, a lot of things happened. We packed up, moved, unpacked. We collected two kids from camp, unpacked, did 200 loads of laundry, and then packed again, this time to send our two older children to college. One year apart but both freshmen now. We packed, we drove to Boston, we unpacked, we drove home, crying a little on the way. We packed again. We drove to Saratoga. We unpacked. We drove home, crying a little on the way. We came home to an emptier house. We pulled ourselves together.  We launched our youngest at a new high school. And then my restful vacation was over.  

That I got a cold was not a surprise nor was it anything but funny when, driving the youngest to school on day two, we smelled something terrible in the car. Like, really, really awful. After some searching it turned out that – well, you know the piles of shopping bags we all keep hoarding now, and maybe some of us have bags inside of bags inside of bags shoved in the back of the car because maybe we’ll need all 400 of them the next time we go to Target? I’m saying hypothetically. Well after some searching we found the source of the odor: a wheel of brie cheese that had been sitting there for a week… in 90 degree heat… sort of a long story involving the college move-in and the bags being in the garage… but that’s not the point, the point is sometimes you have a lot going on and then you end up with a car that smells like rotten brie cheese and then because you’ve been driving in it and touching those bags your hands smell for days and you know what? It’s kind of funny. 

I wrote this sermon because I found myself doubled over laughing at the ShopRite, next to the garbage bins into which I finally did deposit the brie cheese, and 400 shopping bags. Doubled over, gasping for breath. A total release.

And suddenly I knew: I’m going to write about laughter. Because laughter is what the world needs right now. What we need. Laughter is the best medicine. Although whoever said that, as the comedian Greg Kettner said, obviously never had diarrhea. 

Laughter, it turns out, strengthens the immune system and brain. Laughter decreases one’s chances of developing dementia, decreases stress hormones, and increases endorphins and dopamine, the same hormones that produce the runners high. Laughing helps protect the heart and lungs, and if done consistently has similar results of a light cardio workout and actually burns calories even as it strengthens your abs. Move over, Peloton.

And, neurological studies show that those who laugh more live longer.

Laughter only works when everyone joins in; when one person in a group is laughing alone, it’s not so funny. But laughing together is an effective way of improving the positive mood of individuals and a group, a way to bond and boost optimism and hope.

So if I want to stand here and preach that we are going to change the world by changing ourselves… if I’m trying to inspire us to do teshuvah, make ourselves and this world a better place… well, why be so serious? 

What if the way to fixing the world – to getting over our anger problem, and our fear, our toxic culture and stress overdrive – is as simple as… a good laugh?

So now I’m writing a sermon on laughter. Except, I’m all serious. My first draft was a highbrow discourse on the proper modalities of laughter. The Shulchan Aruch on the halakha of laughter. I showed it to some friends and they actually fell asleep. Next idea:  I’m going to do a stand-up routine for my sermon! I’ll get us all rolling in the aisles!

But here’s the thing – I’m not very funny.

So I called my friend Ethan. Rabbi Ethan Linden did stand up comedy in college and he’s hilarious, and I said: teach me how to be funny. 

And he told me – well the key to being funny is to be yourself.

And I thought, that’s too bad.

And then he said: you have to be willing to laugh at yourself.

There’s so much to that. That sounds like teshuvah to me. That’s a comment about humility, and how we carry ourselves in our own hearts and also with one another. If I’m willing to laugh at myself - well, maybe it will help me take life a little less seriously. Maybe it will help me get along with other people better, and not take things so personally. So Rosh Hashanah Laughter Lesson #1: be willing to laugh at yourself a little more this coming year.

Rosh Hashanah Laughter Lesson #2: Laugh at the unexpected, and share that laugh with others. Laughter, it turns out is a theme of the Torah readings today.

The root “laugh” occurs seven times in the story, that magical number seven that signals to us to pay attention.

  • In the opening verses of today’s Torah reading, Abraham names his son Isaac, Yitzhak – it means “he will laugh.”
  • Sarah explains, when they name him: “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me” – kol hashomeah yitzhak li.  This is a completely unexpected turn of events, and they are laughing. 
  • They are laughing together, Sarah and Abraham, parents in their old age. They are laughing because they are joyful, and they want to share this feeling with others. This is exuberant laughter, the kind that is contagious, communal. Everyone who hears will laugh with us: isn’t this what the best kind of laughter is? When you get the giggles, and it infects the whole class
    • Laughter, it turns out, is communal. We are 30 times as likely to laugh with others as we are alone. In fact part of what’s making our culture so toxic is the watching from home phenomenon; Hollywood isn’t making big-budget comedies anymore because when we watch alone we don’t enjoy the joke as much.
    • So God finally gave them a child after telling Abraham his whole life that he’d be the father of a multitude of nations and Sarah’s menopausal? That’s pretty funny.
    • One midrash (Breishit Rabbah 53:8) captures this contagious laugh of joy: The rabbis imagined that when Sarah laughed this laugh, others who also hadn’t had been able to have children before gave birth; that when she laughed the deaf gained their hearing and the blind were able to see. The laugh itself caused this, caused joy and healing in other people’s lives. This is what a laugh can do.
  • You know who else laughs in today’s reading? Yishmael. Sarah sees Ishmael m’tzahek. Unclear what that is, actually, but we can assume that like most older brothers he found a few things to laugh it when it came to his younger sibling. This laugh is different, maybe. We don’t really know. But it feels different, because bad things happen afterwards, sad and hard things; Sarah sees Yishmael laughing and becomes jealous or angry or something, that’s what triggers her to call on Abraham to send Yishmael and Hagar away. A laugh. 
  • Which brings us to the other laugh of Genesis, one that happened before the curtain rose on our story today. A few chapters ago, messengers came to tell Abraham that Sarah will have a child and she hears this and says, I’m 90 years old, that’s absurd, and – she laughs. Like Yishmael, she is laughing alone – vatizhak, in the singular. Was she cynical? Nervous? Scornful? Snarky? God overhears – turns out she’s not really alone, as the ark behind me says, “know before whom you stand” – and God does not join in the laughter. God asks her a question: "Why are you laughing?" And instead of answering, she denies it.  "I didn’t laugh." "Yes, you did," God says. And then grants her a child whom she names Laughter. Sarah kept her reasons private.
  • I wonder if that’s why she kicked Yishmael out. As someone who laughed alone, perhaps she recognized something in him that she knew well and didn’t like.  Watching him laugh alone, m’tzahek in the singular, was the kind of laughter she didn’t want in her house. Maybe she read the study I did, about teenage boys at risk for psychopathy, ones with major behavior problems, how they tend not to laugh when other people around them laugh. Sociologists teach that we use laughter to show belonging to a group, and also to convey that we understand that someone else wants us to laugh and that we want what they want. 
  • Perhaps the Torah is suggesting: notice when you’re laughing alone too much. It’s a sign that something is off. God made us to laugh together. Not at one another, not by ourselves. But together, passing our giggles around the room like candy.

So lesson #1: laugh at yourself.

Lesson #2: laugh at the unexpected, and share that laugh with others. 

So Abraham laughs, Sarah laughs, Yishmael laughs.

And one child, named Laughter. 

Laughter, Yitzhak, is the answer to Abraham and Sarah’s prayers. Yitzhak, Laughter, is Redemption. Redemption is brought into this world by a child named Laughter. 

But – do we ever see him laugh?

In all of Torah and rabbinic literature – the answer is: no.

And this, my friends, is Rosh Hashanah Laughter Lesson #3 –no matter how tough it gets, no matter how bad the diagnosis, no matter how rotten the cheese, keep laughing.

Isaac has a tough life. He has a pretty traumatic childhood, born into a rather weird family dynamic with a step brother and his mother living with them, super elderly parents who probably needed the car keys taken away before they were ready; there’s the trauma of tomorrow’s Torah reading, the whole we’re-going-on-a-trip-son-actually-I-might-kill-you-wait-never mind episode; his mom dies, his dad remarries, starts a big new family. Isaac grows up, can’t have kids, then has twins but they are constantly bickering and finally he goes blind and his wife and one of the kids conspire to lie and cheat him and then one of the sons runs away…I mean this is not an easy life. For a kid named He will laugh. 

And yet – and here is where I need you all to lean in a little, listen up: Isaac is the one patriarch whose name does not change. Abraham started life as Avram; Jacob ends up being named Israel. Isaac stays Isaac. He will laugh. Even when his life is not so funny. He will laugh. 

And so must we.

Life is hard. For Isaac, and for all of us. Life is full of unexpected twists, traumas, loss. One natural response is anger and outrage, fear and stress; but another natural, God-given response is: to laugh. Yitzhak never changes his name - God never changes Isaac’s name - to teach us: no matter what comes our way, keep laughing. 

We don’t get to choose a whole lot about how this year unfolds. But God has given us the thing we need most to handle whatever comes our way: a sense of humor.

Let our Rosh Hashanah resolution be to laugh more this year. 

At ourselves, and with one another. 

May we learn from Abraham and Sarah and Yishmael and Yitzhak to laugh no matter what happens. To laugh at ourselves, to laugh with one another, to heal ourselves and this world by spreading smiles that turn to laughs that turn to joy.

Shana tova u’metuka. May this year be full of laughter for us all.

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784