Parashat Balak's Invitation to Laugh
Delivered at the Riverway Project's Soul Food Friday
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 memory:
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 God?”
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 did it!”
Without a good laugh, God is missing. Just as the teacher, who admonished her student for her laughter, missed the point entirely.
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.