By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz . – The Joke’s on Me
As many of you know, each week I bring several sheets of Divrei Torah to shul. I have a personal connection to most of them and it is extremely meaningful to me that people read them. I feel like a person placing his wares on a display table at the market and I get extreme pleasure when people pick them up to read. (If you would like to sign up for any of them, e-mail info@JewishSpeechWriter.com and ask to subscribe and I’ll submit the request on your behalf. You can keep the ones you like and unsubscribe from the ones that don’t strike your fancy.)
One of them is very popular because it contains humorous jokes or cartoons. The idea is that people start with a smile and then continue to the Torah. So, now that the stage is set, let me continue. One Shabbos, I especially enjoyed the joke. When I saw a fellow I know to have a very good sense of humor in shul on Shabbos morning, I walked over and handed him the sheet, pointing to the funny joke and smiling.
He said to me, slightly perturbed but extremely politely, “I’ll look at it later, I’d like to catch up to the congregation. Is that alright?” In my zeal to share the joke, I hadn’t noticed that he’d arrived a bit late (undoubtedly for good reason) and instead I was merely focused on gratifying myself by seeing his enjoyment of the humorous tidbit. I didn’t really consider him or his needs even though he’s the one I thought would laugh. But the joke was on me.
While I thought I had him in mind, it was shown to me that I was merely being selfish and short-sighted. Aside from the fact that I didn’t give full respect to the davening because I was trying to get a laugh out of him during Pesukei D’Zimra when we should be getting ourselves into the mode of connecting with Hashem in prayer, I didn’t consider what was good for him.
As I stood there thunderstruck by the gravity of what I’d done with my thoughtlessness, I was further stuck by the microcosm of life that exploded in my face. I was trying to grab his attention with some light-hearted fun and he was profoundly aware of the short amount of time he had to play catch-up. He didn’t have time for the games and frivolity. He had work to do! He had to pray and be ready for the next section of Tefila; for the next step
Isn’t that what life is all about? We have a very finite amount of time. It’s even more nerve-wracking than what my friend was facing because we don’t know when our lives will be over or how much time we’ve been allotted. At any moment we could reach the final buzzer and that will be it. We won’t have time to catch up or another chance to complete what we were supposed to. We should all be rather concerned or at least highly aware of this fact and it should be enough to keep us from falling into the trap of those who would simply like to hear us chuckle and enjoy a good joke or frivolous moment on a nearly-constant basis.
There’s a story about the boys who would grow up to become R’ Shmelke of Nikolsburg and his brother R’ Pinchos HaLevi Horowitz, two great rabbinic figures of the 18th century. When they were young, perhaps nine and seven years old, they were learning Torah late into the night and Shmelke sent his brother upstairs to get a certain sefer.
He found the lad some minutes later asleep on the steps with his head leaning on the wall. Shmelke chided him, “Sleeping? In the next world you’ll have time for sleeping!” Now I’m not suggesting that we force our children to study Torah to the detriment of their health and well-being. What I’m pointing out is that these two very special souls recognized from a young age that they had a purpose on earth and they didn’t want to squander the opportunities they’d been given.
That Shabbos morning, I realized how foolish I was being. Yes, there is a time and place for laughter and enjoying a bit of wit. We know that the sages of the Gemara would start a class with a joke or witticism to pique their students’ curiosity and excite them about the topic. But life shouldn’t be just a series of punchlines.
We’re here to accomplish and achieve. Whatever helps us to reach those goals is wonderful and lovely. If blowing off some steam with a little silliness refreshes us and gets us back on track, that’s fine. If sharing a joke builds a camaraderie and love of our fellow man, it’s splendid. It’s important though that we don’t lose sight of the goal so we can make sure to have the last laugh, and the best one at that.
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