Humor is the balancing pole of the tightrope of life, and Jews have always used humor to remain upright. So, for example, the Talmud teaches that if a fledgling bird is found 50 cubits within a man’s property, it belongs to the owner of the property. If it is outside 50 cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it. A reasonable law, surely.
Along comes Rabbi Jeremiah and asks a question that actually got him thrown out of the academy: “What if one foot is within 50 cubits and one foot is outside 50?” I can just imagine the Rabbis in the next seats giggling as he asked.
Humor goes all the way back to the Bible, where some scholars argue that the Book of Jonah is a satire. In a world where prophets give long speeches and no one repents, Jonah gets an entire city to repent with six words, is swallowed by a fish, and the book ends with the question of whether a compassionate God should not save repentant human beings “and also much cattle?” Pretty funny.
What other tradition that has a patriarch named “Laughter” (Isaac)? I like to think our ancestors have always laughed, always joked, always understood that to be serious is not to be solemn, and a sermon should have a smile.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe. His latest book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).