What’s so funny?
At the conclusion of every yoga practice, we get into a pose called shavasana. During this pose, the practitioner lies flat on his back with his arms relaxed to his sides and his legs spread out as wide as the mat. He closes his eyes, breathes and observes his body, scanning it for any muscular tension. If he notices any tension, he will try to release it. Once he has let go of everything, the pose really begins. Although there are numerous benefits to this pose, such as relaxation and rejuvenation, my understanding is that during the practice the body worked very hard, but during shavasana, when the body is neutralized, the mind turns inward to those parts of the body that exerted themselves and gives an awareness to those body parts that didn’t exist before. It can only be understood through experience.
In the story of The Humble King, Rebbe Nachman tells of a certain king who heard of another king that signs himself ‘the mighty warrior, man of truth and humble person’. Although the first king had portraits of every other king in the world, he never saw this king with the decorated signature. So he asked his wise advisor to bring him a portrait of this mysterious king, so he could determine if that king was telling the truth in his signature. The wise man traveled to the land of the hidden king and decided that in order to meet this king, and paint a portrait of him, he must first understand the essence of that land. He said, “One can understand the nature of a land by its humor. In order to understand something, one must know the jokes related to it”.
What does humor and joking have to do with anything here?
As it turns out, the commentaries to this story explain the depths of humor. I’d like to share some of them with you. Firstly, the Talmud says (Eruvin 65b) that one of the four ways to identify a person is by what he laughs about. People will often tell jokes about things they’re too inhibited to discuss openly. So their jokes may tell more about their essence than their serious speech. Furthermore, humor requires a certain objectivity. When a person can laugh at something, it indicates that he’s not too involved in it. As we often see, the butt of the joke is usually very engrossed in what he’s doing, while countering that ‘It’s not funny’!
Humor is all about incongruities. One such incongruity is in the most basic force of creation. On the one hand Hashem gives (חסדים) and on the other hand He holds back (גבורות). Ultimately, of course, even Hashem’s withholding has its roots in His giving. This is the ultimate humor, just like the Zohar (2:163a) compares the Yetzer Hara (Evil urge) to a prostitute that the king hires to seduce his son. The prostitute is working for the king, and really doesn’t want the prince to succumb, so the whole story is really funny. That’s why the Talmud says (Sotah 3a) that a person can’t sin unless a “spirit of foolishness” enters him. Ironically, it’s the jokes and foolishness of the world that give man free will, which enables him to reach higher levels of wisdom. In a certain sense this entire world, with all of our complexities, is nothing more than a funny game. The Talmud says (Shabbas 30a) that Hashem laughs (Psalms 2:4) with the wicked in this world and with the righteous in the word to come.
“בְּשׁוּב יְהוָה אֶת שִׁיבַת צִיּוֹן…אָז יִמָּלֵא שְׂחוֹק פִּינוּ”
“When Hashem brings back the captives of Zion…our mouths will be filled with laughter” (Psalms 126:1-2)
The ultimate place of laughter is the Holy of Holies, as the Talmud relates (Yoma 69b): When the Men of Great Assembly nullified the evil urge for idolatry they saw it emerge from the Holy of Holies. Since everything ultimately comes from one place, the fact that evil appears so different from holiness is amusing.
The Rebbe explained this story with one verse (Isaiah 33:20): “See Zion, the city of our gatherings”. He said that the initial letters of the verse (חֲזֵה צִיּוֹן קִרְיַת מוֹעֲדֵנוּ) spell מְצַחֵק, which means to tell a joke.
A joke can’t be understood logically, but only with a level of consciousness that’s higher than logic. A person laughs at a joke but he doesn’t know why. (Similarly, when a person is lying in shavasana, he might access a level of consciousness and awareness of his body that is higher than logic and understanding). Therefore, it appears that jokes have their origin in Ketter, the most sublime emanation of Godliness that is incomprehensible to man. Zion is a place of our gatherings. This doesn’t only mean that we assemble in Jerusalem thrice yearly. It means that when everything comes together, all of good and evil, truth and lies, body and soul, weak and strong, and even microcosmically in the more trivial exertion of a full-body yoga practice, it comes together in one place. This central place is final and pivotal. This place is where we – physical human beings – can unite with the infinite non-corporeal God of all. This is Zion, the funniest place in the world.