by Braha Bender
“Ever heard the one about.... “
“Knock, knock, who’s there?”
“A rabbi, a priest, and a Palestinian walk into a bar...”
Laughing yet? We all like a good joke, and the booming humour industry shows it. Everyone knows that a good laugh makes troubles slip away. As long as you’re laughing, life seems easier. Serious becomes silly, and heavy becomes funny and light. As gales of laughter roll through your body, the chest opens up, muscles relax, and fresh oxygen flushes your system with vitality. Tension falls away, your blood pressure drops, and stress hormones decrease. Laughter even exercises the internal organs. Places we can’t see inside gallop along when our bodies shake in laughter, toning and stretching to become strong and limber.
During the Jewish month of Adar Jews are commanded to “increase joy”. On the holiday of Purim we dress in costume, deliver treats to our neighbours and friends, and share a lavish meal filled with singing, dancing, drink, and laughter. But the obligation for Jews to live joyfully continues all year. Why does the Torah tell us that it is so important to be happy?
Putting Off the Last Laugh
When Woody Allen was asked whether he wanted to live on in the memory of his family and friends, he responded, “No, I want to live on in my apartment.” One good reason for Torah to command us to live joyfully is that people who laugh more may live longer.
Did you know that happiness and laughter strengthen your immune system? They even improve brain functioning. The benefits of laughter sneak in to your life with every whiff of joy you take from a slap-happy grin, to a quick giggle, to the kind of laughter that bursts out in the middle of calculus in high school when you and your best friend catch each other’s eyes at the wrong moment and both get kicked out of class to laugh until you’re gasping and tears are in your eyes in the hallway. All of it helps, and modern science has proven it.
For example, participants in an experiment conducted by researchers at the University of California were shown to have a 40% higher tolerance for pain and discomfort while laughing and exposed to humour. It’s no surprise – when you’re laughing, things don’t bother you as much. Is it just distraction? That would be good enough, but it actually gets better: laughter has been shown to trigger the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals released by the brain during all sorts of fun activities like exercise and eating chocolate. Which, incidentally, you won’t crave to eat as much because endorphins have been proven to curb the appetite. Want to lose weight? Crack up!
Dr. Madan Kataria, a medical doctor from Mumbai, India, founded Laughter Clubs the world over following his research into the physical and psychological benefits of laughter. The laughter doesn’t even have to be spontaneous. Forced laughter offers similar benefits to spontaneous laughter, and after a short time usually evolves into the same thing. After all, wouldn’t you crack up if you were standing in a room with a bunch of kooks bellowing, “HO-HO-HA-HA-HA” at the top of their lungs – and you yourself were one of them?
The University of Haifa currently offers a BA in Medical Clowning, a field where professionals dress up in big red noses and clapper shoes to visit hospitals and help patients laugh away pain. Hospitals around the world welcome these seriously funny fellows to ease treatments and assist in recovery. A delegation of Israeli medical clowns was recently sent to assist recovery in Haiti.
What does all this mean to you? Well, for one thing, it means you ought to crack more silly jokes! But on a more serious note, living with joy really can help put off the inevitable. Happiness and laughter help prevent, and facilitate recovery from, heart disease and cancer. Forced belly laughs and whoopee cushions notwithstanding, how does the Torah teach us to cultivate a genuine, deep, lifelong sense of glee, delight, and overall just plain happiness?
A Soul Filled With Laughter
Ironically enough, the Torah’s greatest secret to being happy is hidden amongst the most saddening section of the entire five books. Parashas Ki-Savo reads like a Stephen King novel. The list of tragedies threatening the Jewish People would put your heart in your throat. They more or less cover every holocaust, inquisition, expulsion, and pogrom we’ve ever gone through. It’s potent medicine to keep us in line. But what brings about all these shocking curses?
It’s simple: “All these curses will come upon you and pursue you and overtake you... because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart when everything was abundant” (Deuteronomy 28:45-47). Is your life abundant? Are you serving G-d with “gladness and goodness of heart”? Well, why not?
When we are not happy, it’s a symptom of a much more serious problem. People get sad when they feel a lack in their lives. That doesn’t necessarily mean they lack money or physical possessions. Take Haman, for example. He was the consummate self-made man. Haman had it all: wealth, wives, prestige, power, property. Yet, he himself says plainly, “All this is worth nothing to me so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.” (Esther 5:13)
Worth nothing?! When a person has a relationship of gratitude and trust with the Almighty, he doesn’t feel that kind of deep lacking. Sure, he might feel a superficial lacking: “G-d, send me money! Please help me get this job!” It’s okay to feel this sort of lacking because it is supposed to motivate us to pray. Kvetching is a classic Jewish trait.
But on a fundamental level, every Jew is supposed to feel a bedrock-deep sense of security and wellbeing because G-d is in his life. When it comes down to brass tacks, after two-thousand-odd years of Jewish history, including miracles like Purim, every Jew should realize that no matter what happens we will come out okay.
But it goes even deeper than the wonders of Jewish history. Back when Torah was given at Sinai, one of Judaism’s major philosophical revolutions against the reigning pagan thinking of the day was that G-d is not a taker, He is a giver. He loves us unconditionally, and is always on our side. He has no needs and never gets upset. (Torah statements about G-d’s wrath are metaphors for sophisticated spiritual processes that have nothing to do with the narcissistic impulse that we call anger.) No matter what happens, whether painful or pleasurable, Jews believe that every event in their lives was sent from G-d to help them actualize their potential as strong, healthy, and very happy people.
Besides, people in love are not sad. Ever been in love? The world looks rosy. Well, fall in love! G-d is taking care of you. He brings you flowers every spring and a sunrise is full Technicolor every morning. He makes you breathe! How’s that for service? Isn’t He worth trusting, even when the hard times come around?
In a world as crazy as ours, a loving relationship of gratitude and trust in G-d is the only source of true, unwavering happiness. Other joys pass, but that one never goes away. Other relationships may have their ups and downs, but G-d never, ever abandons you.
The Wonderful Laughter of Purim
Purim showed this in spades. On Purim the going got tough, so the tough got going. Haman convinced Achashverosh, who was basically the president of the world at that time, to sign a decree ordering the mass extermination of Jews everywhere. Did we despair? Did we get angry at G-d? No! It was a triumph of love and trust for G-d and the Jewish People, a triumph we will celebrate forever.
Here’s how we did it. The Jews met psychopathic mass-murderer Haman’s “final solution” decree by turning to G-d with trust and love. We took responsibility for mistakes we had been making and committed to better behaviour in the future. We prayed with trust and faith to the G-d who we knew had our best interests in mind. The weight of our troubles became wings. We reached up to the Almighty, and He lifted us right out of trouble. As He always does.
It’s an upside down world. On Purim G-d turned our misery to joy. The very thing that had been a misery itself became a joy because it was the catalyst for us to actualize our potential. What we think are terrible troubles may turn out to be the best things that ever happen to us. The heavy weight on our backs can turn into wings.
Torah explains that happiness is not the goal of being alive, but it is an important by-product and indication that we are fulfilling that goal: having a growth-filled, loving relationship with the Almighty. Try to grasp at happiness and you’ll end up grasping at empty air, vapour, in Hebrew called hevel. Grasp at a meaningful relationship with G-d and you’ll come away with more happiness than you ever knew possible.
So grab the golden ring. We can laugh from the depths of our hearts – and we have to – because there is so much to celebrate! Live joyfully! Appreciate the abundance and serve G-d with gladness! Happy Purim! HO-HO-HA-HA-HA...