Have you ever heard someone tell a joke but you weren’t sure if it was over yet? Or maybe they said something that could have been funny or maybe it was serious? Let me give you an example. One Shabbos there was an aufruf in our shul. For those not of Ashkenazi descent, that’s when a groom gets called to the Torah the week before his wedding. This Shabbos also happened to be Tisha B’Av and Shabbos Chazon. The rabbi got up and began his speech by asking, “What do Tisha B’Av and a chatan have to do with each other?”
It could have been the beginning of a meaningfully serious sermon, if not for one thing: the muffled chuckle of one of the long-time married men in the room. That’s all it took.
That little laugh was the catalyst for a roomful of laughter from the married men for whom making jokes about marriage is a staple and upon whom the similarity of getting married to a day of eternal mourning was not lost. The truth is that there’s a problem with marriage jokes. Women don’t think they’re funny and men don’t think they’re jokes.
Now, see, after that last sentence, I really wanted to put in a smiley face. It would indicate that it was a joke and that you should laugh. It would alert you to the fact that I’m not bashing matrimony, at least not seriously.
Sometimes we need that indication of how we’re supposed to react. In the early days of radio shows, they would record or broadcast the show in front of a live audience. Their reactions would indicate to listeners at home that this was a time to laugh or say “awwww” or similar. The downside was that sometimes people laughed too loudly or too long or not enough for the story the director was trying to tell.
Eventually an engineer name Charley Douglass figured out how to use pre-recorded laughs in a range of volumes and lengths from a murmur of a giggle to a tidal wave of belly laughs and add those into a recording after the performers finished their parts. His creation looked like a square box with keys to press for each sound, and his LAFF BOX was a proprietary industry secret. Directors began building spaces into their shows to allow for what the sound engineers would designate as the best fit for the content.
It made a huge difference because people could hear the “reaction” of others and be better able to frame what they were listening to or watching because of the cues they got. They knew when to laugh, when to smile, and when to stay silent.
I think that in life we also can use cues that tell us how to react, but it’s not always the way the writers would want it. For example, when someone slips on a banana peel and falls flat on the floor, comedy folks expect everyone to be guffawing and howling with laughter. A person who has studied Torah or is sensitive to the Torah way of life will not find this funny. Someone got hurt! That should be a cue to us to remain silent or better yet offer to help.
When that person stands up and is OK, they might say, “Zol zein a kapara,” “Let this be an atonement.” In other words, they recognize that what happened is survivable and much better than what they might otherwise really deserve based on their behavior. This would be a signal to smile, say Amen, and admire the person for their level-headedness.
We have times of the year when we cry, like Tisha B’Av, and times when we are happy, like Purim and the chagim. We have smachot like bar mitzvahs and weddings and we have times like funerals and shiva houses. Chazal tell us that when we go to a shiva house we aren’t supposed to make small talk and “take their mind off” their loss. That’s a time to be silent and not speak unless the mourner speaks.
When you hear someone who seems down and depressed, that’s your signal to try to cheer them up. If they’re anxious and unsure of themselves, you know it’s time to offer some encouragement. We have rules for what we can say and what we can’t. Freedom of speech doesn’t exist in the Torah world the same way it does in society because we are responsible for the outcome of what we say. Speech is quite precious, and surely not free.
When your enemy suffers, you’re not supposed to laugh. If you do, his misfortune may come back and be visited upon you. It’s like we’ve got a whole directory of pointers letting us know what’s appropriate and what’s not.
And I think that’s wonderful. You see, Hashem is the Director of the Universe, and He has a story to tell. Each of us need to know our lines well and follow the script so the story will have a happy ending. The laugh track of life doesn’t detract from the “truth” of it, but on the contrary, it enhances the way we perceive things and makes the show much more enjoyable for everyone.
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By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz