Have You Heard The One About Rosh Hashana?

JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review / Sept. 7, 1999 / 29 Elul, 5759

Have You Heard The
One About Rosh Hashana?

By Rabbi Daniel Lapin

The solemnity of the High Holy Days is shared by other emotions as the following article demonstates.

The shofar
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE HIGH HOLY DAYS begin with two days of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year and end 10 days later with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Talmudic tradition teaches that Rosh Hashana ushers in the month whose astrological sign is Libra-the scales of justice- in order to highlight its theme of allowing G-d to judge us. Sometimes He finds us virtuous and worthy of reward; at other times He finds us lacking and sentences us to cosmic punishment. Rosh Hashana's solemn role of affirming that G-d judges us, makes its central theme of laughter difficult to understand.

Is laughter indeed the motif of this most solemn day, a day that attracts more Jews to synagogue than any other? Regular worshippers are accustomed to finding the meaning of the day in the Torah portion designated for public reading on that holiday. On Rosh Hashana, Chapters 21 and 22 of Genesis are read; they chronicle the birth and early life of Abraham and Sarah's son, Isaac, history's first born Jew. Even from conception, laughter surrounds his life. In fact, out of the 13 Scriptural references to "laughter," nine occur in the context of Isaac's life. His name means "he shall laugh" and it is the name that G-d instructed Abraham and Sarah to give him after they had laughed about his birth. It must have seemed a comic thought that a 90-year-old woman and her 100-year-old husband would become first-time parents.

Econophone Talmudic tradition demands that the shofar (ram's horn) be blown 100 times on Rosh Hashana in a complex sequence of notes composed to sound just like hysterical laughter. With the meaning of Isaac's name as well as the laughing sounds of the day all integrated by the day's reading of the Torah portion, Rosh Hashana is not only the day of judgment, it is also the day of laughter.

Laughter is one of the distinctions that humans enjoy over animals. What makes us laugh? People laugh at things that violate a sense of how things ought to be. A pompous mayor who slips on a banana peel is funny. A tramp who falters and sprawls on the sidewalk just seems sad.

Likewise, the sexual innuendo that provokes howls of laughter among school boys and titters among stockbrokers, elicits yawns of indifference from hardened prison inmates. The joke assaults notions of human refinement, thereby causing laughter. To the depraved it is not a joke, it is reality.

The only reason that we laugh at cartoons of talking animals is because of our underlying conviction that only humans were given the gift of speech. A joke can only be funny in the context of a fixed framework which it contradicts.

Leiters Sukkah

One of the hallmarks of secular liberalism is that there is absolutely no fixed framework at all. In the absence of any system of inviolable, religiously based absolutes, there are no unthinkable acts to perform; there are few rules to violate. In a world in which everything floats, humor has nothing solid to thrust against.

This helps to explain the laughter and joyfulness that permeate the family life of religious Americans who typically favor discipline and structure. Conversely, it also sheds light on the grim seriousness with which the secular liberal seems to go about the business of life. (One cannot help but recall the famous joke that reflected so faithfully, feminism's humorlessness: How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: That's not funny).

Since jokes are only funny if they contradict a preconception, and all preconceptions are becoming banned, certain genres of jokes are vanishing from our national repertoire. For example, humor based on stay-at-home dads no longer resonates when working moms are so common. America's evolving social standards are not introducing new humor genres to take the place of those excised. On the contrary, the political correctness doctrine banishes humor and laughter entirely, precisely because humor presupposes an existing standard. If nothing is abosolutely good and nothing is unthinkably bad, nothing can be funny. Clearly one of the goals of secular liberalism is to eliminate all existing standards. The unintended consequence will be the dreary and somber atmosphere that was characteristic of life behind the old Iron Curtain. Secularism and its sequel, socialism, work together to banish laughter from the world.

Talmudic Tradition has it that Abraham, through his renowned kindness, attracted thousands of devotees to Judaism. Yet, a full three generations later, by which time the world's Jewish population ought to have reached large numbers, the Bible (Genesis 46) indicates a total Jewish population of merely 70 souls.

The Talmud explains these surprisingly diminished demographics as the inevitable consequence of viewing compassion as the only governing principle. Kindness attracts a following-justice and structure keep it. Abraham had focused on the Almighty's capacity for unrestrained love and compassion. Isaac, the icon of Rosh Hashana, introduced an awareness of G-d's firm hand into Jewish culture. Many of the disciples drawn by Abraham's gentle nature were later repelled by Isaac's unpopular emphasis on law, leaving a core following of only 70.

Yet it is precisely the structure of law that defines boundaries and allows humans to live among one another. One of the tractates of the Talmud, Ethics of the Fathers III:2, exhorts "Pray for the welfare of legal authority-without it, men would destroy each other." The origin of legal authority and its best validation is the model of Divine authority. For this reason, civil authorities like kings would often head the Church too. They were aware that their acceptance of G-d's authority made it more logical for citizens to accept their's.

In other words, my children are more likely to obey my rules and later, society's too, if they grow up watching me accept G-d's rules. Children of parents whose vehicles sport bumper stickers that read "Question Authority" will grow up doing just that. They will also become rather hard to live with.

Humans are by nature reluctant to submit themselves to a higher authority. Showing how treasured human moments like laughter depend on that submission, helps persuade us that civilization depends upon allowing G-d to judge us. That is the paramount message of the High Holy Days and accounts for its laughter motif. It also accounts for why traditionally Orthodox synagogues eschew solemnity and somberness and instead, fill the High Holy Days with laughter and joyful celebration.

JWR contributor and radio talk show host, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, is the president of the national organization, Toward Tradition, projecting a comprehensive socio-political vision of moral and economic unity based on the Word of He who is the source of all Unity. Lapin's book America's Real War is a 1999 best seller. Send your comments by clicking here.


©1999, Rabbi Daniel Lapin