June 14, 2013
Parashat Balak's Invitation to Laugh
Delivered at the Riverway Project's Soul
Reading Torah can be a nerve-wracking endeavor.
Even the most experienced readers of Torah, after years of turning our sacred
text, can find themselves trembling as they try to keep the yad steady.
In my first year of rabbinical school, I recall one
student who was particularly nervous. She was reading for the first time
since her Bat Mitzvah, and as she approached the bima she brought with
her a sort of “OMG” facial expression, a look about her that said: Oh my
God, Here I am, standing before everyone….what if I mess up?” Noticing
her dread, the gabbai, the person overseeing the Torah service, faced
her with a warm smile, leaned in, and whisper words in her ear. Instantly
the reader smiled, she even laughed a bit. She was now ready to begin.
Following the service, one of her teachers approached
her, with concern: She nodded with disappointment and said, “No, no…
you do not laugh when you’re about to read Torah: there is nothing funny about Torah.”
No doubt, this teacher took Torah seriously. And reading
the book of B’midbar, our biblical summer reading, we can understand
why. Consider where we are in our narrative: we are recovering from
a series of crimes and capital punishments.
From the crisis that unfolded when 10 out of 12 of the
scouts failed to offer a hopeful vision for the future, to the sacrilege of
Korach and his followers, who with self-righteous zeal sought to undermine the
very foundation of the Israelite community. The death toll of these crimes is
overbearing. We are walking through a dimly lit path in our narrative,
and tomorrow afternoon we arrive at Parashat Balak.
This path looks quite different in this upcoming parasha,
as we walk alongside the prophet Balaam, who is sent by the enemy of Israel,
Balak, to curse Israel. Many know the tale well, but just to refresh our
Balaam is riding his donkey, when the donkey
notices an angel of God standing in the road--no, not the prophet, the donkey.
The donkey swerves out of the way, and the prophet Balaam reacts by beating the
donkey. They continue merrily on their way, until of course it happens
again. (say quickly:)
The donkey notices an angel in the road—no, not the
prophet, the donkey. The donkey swerves out of the way, so the prophet
reacts by beating the donkey. They continue merrily on their way, until
of course it happens again.
After the third donkey-beating, we read: vayiftach
Adonai et pi ha-aton, and God opens the mouth of the donkey (pause)…. and
she said to Balaam, “mah asiti l’cha, what have I done to you that
you’ve hit me three times! Mah asiti l’cha!”
Now, of course you’ve heard the one about the two
muffins-- Two muffins are in an oven. One says to the other, “man,
it’s hot in here.” The other responds, “Oh my God, a talking muffin!”
Here is our talking muffin of Torah: a blind prophet and
his donkey who has 20/20 vision and scores higher than him on his verbal
SAT’s. And by the way, where is Moses? Where is Aaron? Where’s
the painful drama of our people, still in our short-term memory? We are somewhere
else—we have entered the realm of the comic, the ludicrous world that
follows different rules and makes different sense. And lest we think that
this world is heretically irreverent, we remind ourselves, where is God?
Right here with us. The text even repeats the phrase, vayikar Adonai
el Bil’am, God makes himself known to Balaam!” And just in case it is not
clear enough, it is in our Haftarah portion that we hear the donkey’s words
once more: “mah asiti l’cha”—but this time, spoken by God, raising the
volume of the voice of the donkey. How strange: I thought “there is
nothing funny about Torah?” Parashat Balak counters: even in the dark
wilderness, we hear the comic voice of the Sacred.
Indeed, these are dark times in our own world. An
age of such violence and civic brokenness. How – WHEN - can we possibly
overcome the hate that dominates our globe, our country, cities, elementary
schools. A fearful question cries out from our conscience: How do we
kindle the flame of our mitzvot in an ominous climate of corruption and
irresponsibility? In this word of Torah I’m not attempting to answer these
questions, but rather to acknowledge that they are a looming part of our story
today. We are dwelling in that fearful place that is the wilderness. In
the wilderness, it is all too easy for our yad to tremble, to read the
world as a tragedy.
And yet, we need not read Socrates to know the
sibling-like relationship between tragedy and comedy, between crying and
laughing. Two seemingly contradictory human responses somehow draw from
the same well of our tear ducts. Both the comic and the tragic share a
role in the affirmation of life—at each stage.
This endorsement of comedy is not only biblical, it’s
also scientific. Two recent studies presented by researchers at
University of Texas demonstrate clearly that laughter not only reduces stress,
but also improves circulation. These researchers examined blood flow and
dilation of blood vessels, while the subjects watched a comedy or a
tragedy. Those who watched comedy, walked away with significantly
healthier signs, lasting for 24 hours. A salubrious, scientific
invitation to laugh, this upcoming week is punctuated by Parashat Balak.
And even though the text is ancient, the invitation is
quite modern. Boston University Professor Peter Berger, in his book Redeeming
Laughter—a title that says it all—argues that the core element of the comic
experience is the perception of incongruence. That is, when things
don’t match up--like a blind prophet and his talking donkey. Berger
argues that Modernity itself, by pluralizing the world, throwing
together different people, with different values, multiplies incongruence and
actually conduces the comic.
In other words, this Modern wilderness of ours is prime
for comedy. Berger goes even further, saying this: theology has to
catch up. Our parasha invites us to do just that—to cultivate a
sacred sense of humor.
The story is told of two children who were acting
out. The parents who were at wits end, so they decided to bring their
kids to the Temple, to ask the rabbi to speak with them. They sent the
younger one, 8-years old, to speak with the rabbi first.
The Rabbi sat the little girl
down, looked intently at her, hoping to make a dramatic impression, and asked,
“Where is God?”
The little girl sat perfectly
still and said nothing.
The Rabbi repeated, “Where is
Again, no response. So the
rabbi asked one more time, “Where. Is. God?” The 8-year-old ran from the
rabbi’s study, down the hallway, and slammed herself into the closet. The
older brother ran after her, went into the closet and asked, “What happened?!”
The younger sister replied, “Oh
brother, we are in BIG trouble this time. God is missing, and they think we
Without a good laugh, God is missing. Just
as the teacher, who admonished her student for her laughter, missed the point
As we walk through our summer reading, we recognize that
we are, in our text as in our lives, in the wilderness. Here, it can make sacred
sense to buy a funny book, to post an absurd facebook update, to text a
witty friend and share in a good laugh—especially while clinging to Torah,
without fear, reading without dread.
In this wilderness, may we listen for the voices of God
and accept the invitations to laugh.