“Oppressed people tend to be witty,” Saul Bellow once wrote. It seems counterintuitive but true. While many Jews today might struggle with identifying ten Jewish biblical figures outside those in movies, it would be effortless for most of us to come up with the name of ten Jewish comedians. Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning describes the way a group of his comrades tasked each other with making jokes about the food they were served in their concentration camp. If you can laugh about it, the pain cannot touch you as much. If you can laugh in misery, perhaps one day you will be able to laugh in freedom.
The Jewish appreciation and penchant for humor did not develop in the last century. For millennia, there have been funny men and women dotting the pages of the Bible and the Talmud. Clever witticisms and insults are a regular feature of rabbinic dialogue. But there is one Talmudic passage that stands out, however, for the value it places on laughter. In BT Ta’anit [22a], a tractate that discusses, of all things, the ritual of fasting, we find a remarkable story, cited here in the Koren English translation:
Rabbi Beroka Hoza’a was often found in the market of Bei Lefet, and Elijah the prophet would often appear to him. He said to him, “Is there anyone in this market worthy of the World-to-Come? He said to him: No. In the meantime, he [the rabbi] saw a man wearing black shoes who did not place the sky-blue thread on his garment [tzitzit]. He [Elijah] said to him: That man is worthy of the World-to-Come. He ran after him and said to him: “What is your occupation?” He said to him: “Go away now but come back tomorrow. The next day, he said to him, “What is your occupation?”
We take a pause from the Talmudic text for a moment of explanation. Bei Lefet was a large commercial center where much business was conducted. The man wearing black shoes and no ritual fringes was apparently not Jewish as Jews had the custom of wearing shoes with white straps (who knew?). The rabbi in our tale found it hard to believe that Elijah would identify such a one as worthy of the elusive World-to-Come. This is prime spiritual real estate and not every one is worthy. The man finally identified himself as a prison guard who placed himself between male and female prisoners so they would not come to sin, and he risked his life to save vulnerable women. He was indeed Jewish but dressed in this fashion so that he could find out information that may impact his people and report it. Obviously the rabbi was impressed that someone who looked one way on the outside could have the capacity for so much goodness on the inside. In the midst of this discussion, the Talmud continues…
In the meantime, two brothers came [to the market]. He [Elijah] said to him [the rabbi]: “These two also have a share in the World-to-Come.” He went over to the men and said to them: “What is your occupation?” They said to him: “We are jesters, and we cheer up the depressed. Alternatively, when we see two people who have a quarrel between them, we strive to make peace.”
Three people in the marketplace were deserving of life in the hereafter, and this designation was a result of what they did at work. One got in for caring about the dignity of those often discarded and ignored by society to the point of sacrificing his own life to achieve this protection. And the other two were far from this noble perch. Instead, they were jesters. They made people happy, so happy that in the midst of an argument, they created peace. It sounds so simple, but a whole-hearted devotion to making other people happy as a profession, as an occupation, is not easy at all.
I had studied this passage last year and had heard it before, but I never really understood it until I attended the funeral of Evan Levy, of blessed memory, last week. You see Evan was a special little boy of four who, in the past year-and-a-half, endured 7 surgeries, 5 of them on his brain. His father cited this piece of Talmud in describing Evan’s “evan”escence, his energy, his monkey-like pranks and the way he had of walking into a room and lighting up the space. Even at his young age, Evan had a gift for making people happy. His mother mentioned a pre-school teacher who said that if Evan was not in school, the day was boring. A close friend spoke and said that when the family announced that Evan died, she texted the fire department, police department, sanitation department and ice cream truck man. You see, these people were Evan’s close friends. He regularly rode up and down his neighborhood in the ice cream truck. In her eulogy, this devoted friend read the condolence note that the ice cream truck man wrote. He described Evan as an angel. Evan’s father closed his remarks by saying that now it’s God’s turn to play with Evan and how lucky God is to do so.
Evan’s loss is tragic. His funeral was profoundly painful. But it was also deeply uplifting. Gone is a pint-size hero, but the legacy he left is out-sized. He taught thousands of adults the lesson the Talmud tried to teach two thousand years ago. Be a jester. Bring cheer to those who are sad. Make peace in the face of a quarrel.
We’re here for such a short time. Let’s spend more time laughing.
May Evan’s memory be for a blessing.