[Sermon] Why Does Laughter Matter?

Cantor Tamara Wolfson
26 October 2018

Parashat Vayeira 2018: Why Does Laughter Matter?

Mr. Rabinowitz was propped up on his deathbed, his days on this earth drawing to a close. His family had been streaming in and out of the house to say their goodbyes, and now only his daughter sat and kept vigil by his side while his dear wife busied herself around the house. When Mr. Rabinowitz awoke from his slumber, he turned to his daughter and said: “I can smell that your mother is making my most favourite dinner, her famous noodle kugel. Please, could you bring me some? It’s the only thing I’ve been hungry for in days.” His daughter obliged and hurried to the kitchen, but when she came back to her father’s bedside she was empty-handed. Wide-eyed, his voice just barely a whisper, Mr. Rabinowitz asked with his final breath: “where’s my noodle kugel?” And his daughter answered with a helpless shrug, “sorry Dad, but she’s saving it for the shiva!”

— — — — — — — —

Why did you laugh, just then?

Some of you may have found that joke genuinely funny, so you couldn’t help but laugh. Some of you may have laughed nervously or uncomfortably, and some of you may have chosen not to laugh at all.

In her TED Talk called “Why We Laugh”, neuroscientist Sophie Scott observed that “if you ask human beings, “When do you laugh?” they’ll talk about comedy and they’ll talk about humor and they’ll talk about jokes… And when we laugh with people, we’re hardly ever actually laughing at jokes. We are laughing to show people that we understand them, that we agree with them, that we’re part of the same group as them. We’re laughing to show that we like them. We might even love them. We’re doing all that at the same time as talking to them, and the laughter is doing a lot of that emotional work for us.”

I recently went to a stand-up comedy night in town, and spent over an hour laughing hysterically with a room full of complete strangers. At the end of the evening we streamed out of the theater and dispersed, but there was a sense that our shared experiences of riotous, sometimes nervous, sometimes downright uncomfortable laughter had temporarily created a community.

Who knew that laughing is really so much more than meets the eye? Our Talmudic Sages certainly did. The significance of laughter is especially relevant in light of this week’s parashah, Vayeira, in which we find one of the most famous examples of laughter in the Tanach.

The moment she overheard that she would bear a son, “Va’titzchak Sarah b’kirbah”: “Sarah laughed to herself”. Just like our modern-day neuroscientists, the Rabbis of the Talmud wanted to explore this laughter. The sages ask: why did Sarah laugh, and how did she laugh? What does the text mean by “va’tizchak b’kirbah”?

Chizkuni translates “b’kirbah” as “in her heart and mind”: Sarah laughed silently and internally, but not out loud. Rashi translates “b’kirbah” not as Sarah laughing “to herself” but rather “about herself”: that she reflected on her insides and her physical condition, thinking: “how is it possible that a woman my age will conceive?” And Radak wrote that Sarah laughed derisively — yet internally — because she did not believe that these words emanated from an angel. Rather, she thought they came from a prophet, and this made her slightly more skeptical. It may have been more of a scoff than a laugh.

So even in Biblical times, we see that laughter is not just an involuntary response to comedic or ridiculous situations. Rather, Sarah’s laughter is layered with additional significance.

Neuroscience teaches us that we use laughter as a social strategy. Our Torah teaches us that laughter is a complex emotional response. And anthropology reveals that we employ laughter differently depending on our cultural conditioning. I’ve noticed this firsthand as I’ve begun adjusting to life here in England: one of the biggest differences between America and England is in when, how, and why we laugh.

In an article called “The Difference Between American and British Humour”, comedian Ricky Gervais reflects: “There’s a received wisdom in the U.K. that Americans don’t get irony. This is of course not true. But what is true is that they don’t use it all the time. It shows up in the smarter comedies, but Americans don’t use it as much socially as Brits. We use it as liberally as prepositions in everyday speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and a weapon. We avoid sincerity until it’s absolutely necessary. We mercilessly [make fun of] people we like or dislike… and ourselves. This is very important. Our brashness and swagger is laden with equal portions of self-deprecation. This is our license to hand it out.”

In the last few months, I’ve often found myself laughing half-heartedly at something I neither understood nor found particularly funny. I’ve also been the center of more than a few jokes, and have been told that this is actually a sign of affection. I’m slowly gaining fluency in deadpan delivery, which I’m told is a hallmark of good British comedy. I’m learning firsthand that one of the most important elements of any culture is understanding its humor. Thankfully, I’ve found that a good Jewish joke can even transcend the transatlantic divide.

So what does our laughter say about us? Quite a lot, as it turns out. And whether we are laughing out of joy, shock, skepticism or even unexpected blessing, we learn from our Torah this week that no matter what makes us laugh, there may be a deeper “why” underneath it all.

Shabbat Shalom.

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