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A Tale of Two Clowns
by Avi Lazerson
The Talmud is one of the oldest and richest sources of knowledge. It has been around for some two thousand years. It is a compilation of many legal arguments and stories that provide us with deep sources of understanding our life and direction to get through this world to the next.
One of the well-known legends in the Talmud deals with Rabbi Broka who was a very holy man. Elijah the prophet would often come down from heaven to visit him. One time when Rabbi Broka was walking through the bustling market place of his city, Elijah the prophet accompanied him. Seeing all of the bustle and hustle of the city market place, being impressed with its intense activity with the myriad throngs of assembled people, Rabbi Broka turned to Elijah the prophet and asked him if any of the people here were destined to enter heaven.
Elijah, to whom the secrets of heaven were revealed, scanned the large market place with his eyes and then shook his head and told him that no one here was destined for the next world.
As they continued on, Elijah suddenly spotted two men and pointed them out to Rabbi Broka. "These two men are destined for the next world," he told Rabbi Broka.
Excitedly, Rabbi Broka ran towards them. He wanted to learn from them what it was that they did or what merit they possessed that earned them the good fortune to be destined to enter heaven. Stopping them in the middle of the market place, he pointedly asked them what they do.
They replied that they were "badkanim" (a form of joker or clown). They continued explaining to Rabbi Broka that when they ever they see someone who is sad or depressed, they go and cheer him up. When they see two people who are angry with each other, they go to they and joke around with them and make them friends again.
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Now we must understand the significance of what has been said, for this sounds too simple. The Talmud does not waste its words with trivial ideas and matters. If Rabbi Broka was indeed a holy man on such magnitude that Elijah the prophet, who lived some one thousand years earlier, came to visit him and of his many visits, only this was written down in the Talmud, it must be important for us to know. Those ideas written down in the Talmud are not mere history, but rather instruction for us.
Secondly, we should ask, if cheering up a person is so important, perhaps we should give more credence to the entertainment industry for medicinal purposes, in that it is helping mankind overcome its ills instead of condemning it for creating them. Maybe we should learn more jokes and tell them to our friends and neighbors; maybe we will also get into heaven this way.
Thirdly, and perhaps more important, is that if jokes and humor are such good medicine, why should we pay a psychologist or a psychiatrist so much money. Why not just watch a good Woody Allen movie?
Does it really make sense that if a person is suffering from a medical problem or a financial problem or a personal dispute, will a few well placed jokes here and there make him feel better? And if he really laughs at some witty stories, will that cure an illness or pay a bill or make peace between two bickering friends?
And if it really does help pay the bills or alleviate pain, is that enough to push the joker through the pearly gates? Doesn't he have to do more that that?
Something deeper must be alluded here.
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Let us begin to explain that what is being said here has a much deeper meaning than that we can see with a quick glance. Jokes do have a therapeutic action, but there is more to it than just that.
When problems hit, and they sometimes hit very hard, we often find ourselves engulfed and entwined by difficulties that we can neither see nor figure a way out. Even worse, we can not focus clearly on other matters because of the intense sorrow and pain we feel. Sometimes our problems can be so intense that other aspects of our lives don't even occupy a secondary position. Whether our problems be monetary, physical or personal, we can focus on these problems to the detriment of our ability to function.
Jokes can be used in a therapeutic manner to help a person externalize his problem. When a person can see the suffering that he is undergoing as a limited process which is external to his being then he can put it back into the proportion. This will minimize the damage that is brought by the pain, whether physical financial or emotional. As example, a person who is going through financial difficulties to the extent that he has becomes distraught and depressed; it is because he is focusing too much on this problem. This causes him to continue to focus even more on it taking it out of context and making it larger than it is.
Obviously, financial problems are no pleasure, but becoming despondent from them certainly will not help him work harder, think clearer, and live cheerfully through them. It is only if one can externalize the problem, meaning to see the problem as something that is not "him" personally, but something external to his personality, then he has a strong chance of not being affected by the down side of his temporal fate.
Jokes were a form of therapy that even Freud recognized as a positive aspect in mental health. Once a person can separate himself from his problems, his problems become more manageable. When he can laugh at problems similar to his, then he can laugh even at his own problem. This is possible through carefully selected jokes which ridicule problems of a similar nature. This permits a person from disengaging himself from the extensive self-scrutiny and from needless worry and to begin to see his situation in a more realistic manner. He can realize that he is O.K. and that eventually he will rise above his situation.
Besides the therapeutic release that jokes provide, it provides a person to see himself in a prospective that promotes seeing his suffering in a more holistic light. Realizing that this is part of life that people sometimes must experience, makes it easier to bear.
* * * * *
Although this may have shed some light on the importance of laughter to alleviate suffering, still, we haven't understood why this singular deed warranted entrance of those two comedians to heaven.
The answer to the second part to this riddle is as follows: It is a well known fact that a person who is in pain may pray to G-d with deep fervor to relieve his problem, but that is because he feels that all hope is gone. A much higher level of service, is that which is done when a person is in a state of happiness in that which G-d has given to him.
In addition, he may feel the necessity for divine intervention, but this does not mean that he feels any particular closeness to G-d. Just the opposite, in his suffering, he feels a separation from G-d. He can view his affliction as a sign that G-d is not with him - when it may not be true.
When a person realizes that nothing in this world happens with out the complete agreement of G-d, then he is on the correct path to seeing G-d's hand in this world. It is only through seeing, in spite of all the difficult situations that man is put through, that he can truly see G-d in his life. Just like our patriarch Jacob suffered seventeen years thinking that his favorite son, Joseph, was dead. During this time he never experienced a prophetic revelation, yet, after he was reunited with Joseph, and his spirits were elevated, then his prophetic experiences returned to him.
It was through his intense suffering that caused his prophetic abilities to cease, similarly, it was his immense joy that caused them to be regained. So we, too, in our small way, can only truly be one with G-d if we are not occupied with our personal grief.
This was the message that the Talmud was telling us. One, the importance of our avoiding depression, and two, the importance of seeing G-d in spite of our distresses. Perhaps more important for us, while we are still blessed with good fortune, is the cheering up of other people.
from the February 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine