The End Justifies the Memes (Shabbos 30)
“It’s beginning to feel like we’re contestants on Big Brother. We’re now deciding which of the kids gets voted out of the house first.”
“We’re all now working from home. So why do some people feel the need to set up an auto-response on their email, saying they’re currently out of the office?”
״וְשִׁבַּחְתִּי אֲנִי אֶת הַשִּׂמְחָה״ — שִׂמְחָה שֶׁל מִצְוָה. ״וּלְשִׂמְחָה מַה זֹּה עוֹשָׂה״ — זוֹ שִׂמְחָה שֶׁאֵינָהּ שֶׁל מִצְוָה. לְלַמֶּדְךָ שֶׁאֵין שְׁכִינָה שׁוֹרָה לֹא מִתּוֹךְ עַצְבוּת וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ עַצְלוּת וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ שְׂחוֹק וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ קַלּוּת רֹאשׁ וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ שִׂיחָה וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ דְּבָרִים בְּטֵלִים, אֶלָּא מִתּוֹךְ דְּבַר שִׂמְחָה שֶׁל מִצְוָה. אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה: וְכֵן לִדְבַר הֲלָכָה. אָמַר רָבָא: וְכֵן לַחֲלוֹם טוֹב. אִינִי, וְהָאָמַר רַב גִּידֵּל אָמַר רַב: כׇּל תַּלְמִיד חָכָם שֶׁיּוֹשֵׁב לִפְנֵי רַבּוֹ וְאֵין שִׂפְתוֹתָיו נוֹטְפוֹת מָר, תִּכָּוֶינָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״שִׂפְתוֹתָיו שׁוֹשַׁנִּים נוֹטְפוֹת מוֹר עוֹבֵר״: אַל תִּקְרֵי ״מוֹר עוֹבֵר״, אֶלָּא ״מָר עוֹבֵר״. אַל תִּקְרֵי ״שׁוֹשַׁנִּים״, אֶלָּא ״שֶׁשּׁוֹנִים״. לָא קַשְׁיָא: הָא בְּרַבָּה וְהָא בְּתַלְמִידָא. וְאִיבָּעֵית אֵימָא הָא וְהָא בְּרַבָּה, וְלָא קַשְׁיָא: הָא מִקַּמֵּי דְּלִפְתַּח, הָא לְבָתַר דִּפְתַח. כִּי הָא דְּרַבָּה מִקַּמֵּי דְּפָתַח לְהוּ לְרַבָּנַן אָמַר מִילְּתָא דִּבְדִיחוּתָא וּבָדְחִי רַבָּנַן, לְסוֹף יָתֵיב בְּאֵימְתָא וּפָתַח בִּשְׁמַעְתָּא
How do we reconcile two contradictory statements about joy in the Book of Kohelet? “So I commended joy,” refer to the joy of a mitzvah. “And of joy: What does it accomplish?” that is joy that is not of a mitzvah. This is to teach you that the Divine Presence rests upon an individual neither from an atmosphere of sadness, nor from an atmosphere of laziness, nor from an atmosphere of levity, nor from an atmosphere of frivolity, nor from an atmosphere of small-talk, nor from an atmosphere of idle chatter, but rather from an atmosphere imbued with the joy of a mitzvah.
Rav Yehuda said: And, so too, for a matter of halacha. Is that so? Didn’t Rav Giddel cite Rav: Any Torah scholar who sits before his teacher and his lips are not dripping with myrrh due to reverence for his teacher, those lips shall be burned? The Gemara answers: This, where it was taught that he must be joyful, is before he begins teaching, whereas that, where it was taught that he must be filled with trepidation, is after he begins teaching halacha, like Rabba did. Before he began teaching to the rabbis, he would say something humorous and the rabbis would laugh. He would then recompose himself, sit in trepidation and begin.
Is it OK to joke during these challenging times? All around us, people are suffering. Many have lost loved ones to coronavirus. All communal gatherings have been cancelled. The unemployment numbers are at all-time high. And there are so many unknowns.
The Gemara clarifies the difference between two types of joy referred to by King Solomon in Kohelet. Joy that stems from frivolity and levity is forbidden. Joy that stems from the performance of a mitzvah is holy.
Nevertheless, there is a middle type of joy that is not innately holy, but can be sanctified if utilized as a vehicle for holiness. When humour is employed in order to lighten a tense situation and bring people closer to Hashem, the humour has been elevated from the mundane to the realm of spirituality. Rabba would always start his class with a joke to get the students feeling positive and joyous. With their minds at ease and thinking positively, they were then primed to begin learning Torah.
In Sermonics 101, my teacher, Rabbi JJ Schacter, teaches that there are four words that one must never begin a Shabbat morning sermon with: In this week’s parsha. Unless you’re looking for a fail proof way to put the congregation to sleep and lose them in the first sentence. A good sermon begins with a ‘hook’ to garner their attention. That could be a joke, it could be a comment on current affairs, or it could be a trivial idea that keeps the congregation guessing as to where you’re going. In all of these cases, the ‘opener’ is not innately holy. It serves merely as the conduit to opening people’s minds to Torah.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Tanya 7) cites humour as an example of ‘kelipas nogah’. It is innately neither good nor bad. As an end in itself, it risks falling into the Gemara’s category of inappropriate joy. But we have the capability to transform it into spiritual, positive energy. When we use it as a means to an end – to bring joy to a mitzvah, such as Torah study – we elevate it, and make it a force for the good.
And likewise, throughout the centuries, humour has carried our people through the depths of the darkness of the exile. Bemused by the volume of jokes and memes emanating from the midst of the current crisis, Rabbi Lord Sacks concludes (Vayikra 5780), ‘What we can laugh at does not hold us captive in fear. So please watch and share all the humorous little videos on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram etc. that you can find because they really do lift your spirits.’
The Baal Shem Tov would say, ‘There is one mitzvah, that is not really a mitzvah, but it is greater than all the other mitzvos. What is that? Joy. There is one sin, that is not really a sin, but is worse than all other sins. What is that? Melancholy’ (Nesivos Sholom).
Staying joyous and positive allows a person to “serve Hashem with joy” (Ps.100). If you allow yourself to be overtaken by sadness and pessimism, it can lead to a downward spiral of dejection and hopelessness. Amidst all the sadness and grief of our present terrible situation, it might feel inappropriate to tell a joke or share a meme, but if you can lift people’s spirits to keep them going and infused with the ongoing desire to engage in Torah and mitzvos, then the end justifies the memes!
It’s not easy to laugh when there’s so much sadness around. But if we don’t allow ourselves to share humorous thoughts and ideas, we run the risk of losing hope. May the Almighty redeem us from this darkness speedily and may He find us filled with joy, positivity, and a never-failing spirit of enthusiasm to serve Him!