The Last Laugh

One of the healthiest things a person can do is laugh. Sometimes we can see that those who have the most developed sense of humor are those who have one through the most traumatic events in life. So, laughter has a preserving quality to it: it helps us through our darkest moments. But more than that, even on a physical level, doctors tell us that laughter is healthy: it aids in digestion, it helps a person recover more quickly from illness, and in general it shapes the body into a more healthy organism.

So, it's worthwhile to analyze what laughter is all about. A recent philosopher broke down people's reaction to information into three different categories. On one hand, there is the reaction to logical and compatible information, which he called the "A-Ha" reaction. Two pieces of information which come together to create a more complete picture elicit an affirmative response, as when one says "A-Ha".

A second and opposite reaction occurs when one receives incompatible information. When the pieces of information don't make sense together, then the reaction is a negative, "Uh-Uh" response.

Yet a third reaction occurs when two or more bits of data make sense together, but only temporarily. For a moment, we catch a glimpse of a reality which delights us, but then dissipates. For example, if I intend to say the phrase "well-oiled bicycle", but get tongue twisted and say "well-boiled icicle", then we have two pieces of information (well-boiled, and icicle) which are incompatible, and fit together briefly in an amusing way. This our philosopher called the "Ha-Ha" reaction.

Such is the nature of laughter. It is the result of looking at things an a new and unexpected way which causes us to laugh.

The final month of the Jewish calendar is called "Adar" ( roughly corresponding to March). Like every month of the Jewish year, it is associated with a sense, in this case the sense of laughter. Whether it's because Adar is the final month of the year, and he who laughs last laughs longest, or because this month signifies our emergence from the long dark winter months of Tevet and Svat (roughly January-February), Adar is full of laughter.

The sages said, "As Adar enters, we increase in happiness". The peak of happiness occurs in the middle of the month, when we celebrate the holiday of Purim, in which we tell the story of how the Jewish people was almost annihilated at the hands of an anti-semitic Persian minister some twenty four hundred years ago. At the last minute, G-d made His presence known through the courageous act of a Jewish woman, Queen Esther, and saved the Jews. From the unlikely direction of the Persian court itself came the surprising and unexpected salvation. Then, as in other periods in Jewish history, the world was full of laughter.

What would happen, though, if the surprise juxtaposition of incongruous data would suddenly prove to be the true reality?

What if, instead of being a temporary pun or joke which was funny only as long as we put together two incompatible pieces of information, the pieces managed to stay together in a beautiful and fulfilling way?

Then, we would be in a permanent state of laughter. We would always be in a state of surprised delight at the creation and all there is in it. So , the sages tell us, will be stage of history of the seventh millennium- the days of "meshiach"-the Jewish messiah.

It can't be that far away. Jewish tradition has it that the world as we know it will last no more than 6000 years. We're already in the year 5760, and meshicah needn't wait until the last minute to appear on the scene.

So, hold on to your seats! In the meantime, let's try to prepare ourselves for his arrival by learning more about laughter"

Funny How Things Come Together...

Laughter makes its first appearance in the Torah in the persons of Abraham and Sarah. There (Genesis 18:12-15), upon hearing that she would give birth in her old age, we are told that Sarah laughed. G-d asks, "Why is Sarah laughing? It is beyond Me to do anything whatsoever?". Sarah ,embarrassed, quickly changed her approach. And when her son Isaac was born a year later, she named him after laughter, but in the future tense, "and he will laugh".

When? The sages say that when the meshiach comes, it will be Isaac, not Abraham, or Jacob, who will stand up for the Jewish people (Shabbat 89:2). Isaac will be the one to herald the new dawn of consciousness, and he will herald it with laughter. It will be all-knowing laughter, the laughter of the one who knew all along that something good was awaiting for us at the end.

Why Isaac? Isaac might have been blind in his final days, but he nevertheless has foresight. He knew, for example, that his grandson Joseph was alive, even when Joseph's own father Jacob didn't know. But, Isaac said, if G-d doesn't want to tell my son Jacob, then who am I to tell him?

When it comes to the arrival of meshiach, we may not know, but Isaac knows all along. And he is laughing because he already sees all the pieces of the puzzle of Jewish history, and knows how they fit together in the end.

Laughter makes another appearance in the psalms of King David. There , (Psalm 126) he prophecies about what's going to happen when the meshiach arrives. He tells us, first of all, what our own reaction is going to be. We'll be like dreamers, he says. Everything we went through for the last six thousand years will blow away like leaves in the wind. It will be like it didn't happen. Then, our mouths will be full of smiles and laughter. Why? Because of the "Ha-Ha" reaction. Two incompatible pieces of information come together: one being that we suffered like crazy for thousands of years, and two, that G-d was really there the whole time. But, this time, the two pieces of information stick together. We become aware of why all this had to take place. And in the end, we smile.

Rebbe Akiva managed to pull it all together. He laid the foundation for the entire Talmud and at the same time taught and trained the teachers of the following generation. During his lifetime he saw both destruction and building. We are told (tractate Macot 24) that once, while walking with his colleagues among the ruins of the Second Temple, they spotted a fox running out of the broken walls and burned ashes. His colleagues cried, but Rebbe Akiva laughed. "Why", they asked him, "are you laughing?". He quoted from the verses of the prophets, and explained to them that until Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, it couldn't be rebuilt as it would be in the end of days. Now that he saw the destruction, he was certain that the final redemption would take place. His colleagues were comforted, but we are left to wonder why they didn't have his eyesight, his ability to grasp the entire picture. Unlike them, Rebbe Akiva was able to laugh because he could see how all the details of the picture fit together in one puzzle.

The more we are able to grasp the details and fit them together in one whole picture, the more we are able to laugh. And there is no picture or puzzle more final and all-inclusive than the coming of Meshiach. He who laughs last, laughs longest"

Mystical Meditations

Like every month in the Jewish calendar, Adar has a set of correspondences. There is a tribe, a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a sense, and a sphera, or G-dly emanation, among other things, as taught in the Sefer Yetzirah, B'nei Yissachar, and other holy books.

The letter of Adar is the Hebrew letter "kuf", with numerical value (gematria) of one hundred. One hundred, according to the Kabala, represents completion, or perfection. The month Adar brings us to the ultimate completion, or perfection of the year, before we go on to the new year in Nissan. Also, a "kof" in Hebrew is a monkey, a poor imitation of a human being, to tell us that whatever we see on the surface in this world, it's only superficial, and the true reality is beyond.

The tribe of the month is Naftali, who is described by the Torah as a deer in the field, a light-footed animal which virtually flies over the meadows and streams. Perhaps his lightfootedness is meant to remind us of the fleeting nature of creation: that the true reality is the spirituality invested in the creation, while the creation itself is ephemeral. So also the month of Adar reminds us of a hidden Power, of which we occasionally catch a glimpse as it re-creates the universe at every moment. In Psalms, King David describes the soul's longing for contact with this Power as a deer yearning for a pond of water. So also, our souls long for spirituality and G-dliness. Naftali, we are told by the Midrash, used to make the wicks for the Menorah of the holy Temple. Wicks are the interface which connect the intangible fire with the corporeal candle, and so Naftali represents the elusive interface between the creative power from Above and the physical world below.

The sense of the month, as we mentioned before, is the sense of laughter. When things are not what they seem to be, and nature is wearing a mask all the time, masquerading as the ultimate reality, then it's time to catch a glimpse behind the mask. If we deserve it, then during the month of Adar, we get a peek at the true reality, at that of G-dliness and spirituality. And then, we laugh, because everything that we thought was real up until now proves to be as temporal as the clouds in the sky.

And finally the sphera, or G-dly emanation which holds sway this month. It is the sphera of malchut, or G-d's sovereignty over creation. Sometimes it's called the "shechina". G-d creates with this sphera. In Genesis, we are told that G-d created the universe with speech -with the ten creative utterances at the very beginning of the Torah. So the sphera of Malchut is also G-d's "power of speech". A king rules after his dominion by sending out his decrees by messengers. The ten utterances of creation are G-d's messengers, putting His will into effect by creating the universe. The Chassidic sources tell us that this enlivening force has a subtle "hide-and-seek" relationship with the world: it is at once aloof, coming from the high spiritual source known as "malchut" or the "shechina", at the same time it intimately permeates and breathes life into the physical creation.

This elusive energy is what our souls seek in connection with when we look for G-d in the world, and it's more evident during the month of Adar, the month when His Presence (shechina) peeks from behind the mask of creation and lets us have a glimpse of the True reality.

Living Dangerously

A Purim Story from the Talmud

There is a story in the Talmud (Megilah 7:2) which tells of two sages who consumed a lot of wine on Purim. It follows the famous statement instructing us to drink so much on Purim that we don't recognize the difference between the "Cursed be Haman" ( the bad guy of the story) and "Blessed be Mordecai" (the good guy). The story then goes like this, "Rabah and R'Zerah (two sages) made a Purim feast together, imbibed a considerable amount, whereupon Rabah got up and "snuffed out" (lit. slaughtered) R'Zerah. The next day, Rabah prayed and resurrected R'Zerah. The following year, Rabah reissued the invitation, saying to R'Zerah, "Let his honor come over and we'll make a Purim feast together". R'Zerah replied, "miracles don't happen every day".

Obviously, this story needs a lot of explanation. How can we say that Rabah, the greatest sage of his generation, could even remotely be suspected of the cardinal transgression of shedding blood? And two more points: Rabba not only does not regret and request forgiveness (from G-d or from R'Zerah), for the events of that Purim. He actually goes so far as to invite R'Zerah to a Purim feast again the following year. And R'Zerah, even more amazingly, declines only for the reason that he wasn't sure Rabah would be able to re-perform the miracle of putting his soul back into his body as he has the previous year. That is, he wasn't concerned about being "snuffed out" once more, and was even ready to rejoin the Purim party, if t weren't for his doubt of being revived.

This story, as everything else in the Talmud, carries with it a spiritual corollary. The purpose of the Purim feast was that Rabah and R' Zerah should reveal the "wine", or the secrets of the Torah. And that's exactly what took place. At the Purim feast, the highest secrets and revelations of the Torah were revealed to them, all the way up to the spiritual level "of not knowing (how to discern between Mordecai and Haman)". But while both of them achieves this level, only R'Zerah's soul departed from his body. The reason? Rabah had a higher spiritual intellect with which he was able to absorb and integrate the intense revelation from Above, while R'Zerah couldn't contain and integrate this revelation. This is even hinted to in their names: "Rabah" indicates "greatness", as in expanded consciousness, while R'Zerah indicates "smallness", as the word "zeir" means small, as in limited consciousness. Therefore, it was only R'Zerah's soul which departed the body, and not Rabba's.

The language of the Talmud is interesting here. It says, "Rabah got up and "snuffed out" R'Zareh" ( the actual Hebrew word is "shechted", or ritually slaughtered, as when one ritually slaughters an animal in preparation for eating it). It should have simply said, "Rabah killed R'Zerah". Why does the Talmud use a phrase that indicates ritual slaugher? Ritual slaughter implies spiritual elevation, since the slaughtered animal becomes the blood and flesh of the person who eats it, whereupon it becomes absorbed into a higher state of being (human, rather than animal). In our case, the connotation of the word "slaughtered", as in "Rabah got up and slaughtered R'Zerah", is that Rabah elevated R'Zerah to a level which was so far beyond his previous level (by revealing him the deepest secrets of the Torah), that he wasn't able to take it, and he quite simply expired. His soul left his body. Here we see two things: "slaughter" indicates that the soul really did depart from the body. On the other hand, this is not an act of shedding blood, G-d forbid. Quite the opposite, it is a very high level of expiration, similar to that experienced by Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron and Cohen. Therefore also the Talmud says that "Rabah got up and slaughtered - rather than the more simple "Rabah slaughtered R'Zerah", in order to indicate that "getting up" involved a spiritual elevation for R'Zerah. But, regarding Rabah himself, who had the ability to absorb and integrate this spiritual level, even this revelation didn't cause his soul to expire from his body.

The conclusion of the story now also becomes understood, "The following year he invited him once more, but R'Zerah declined, saying that miracles don't happen every day". Not only did Rabah not regret what happened the previous year, but quite the opposite, he actually invited R'Zerah once more to join him for a Purim feast, in the hope that this year he would again be able to illuminate R'Zerah with a high spiritual revelation of leading to "expiration of the soul". But since the ultimate will from Above is that the soul should remain in the body, he (Rabah), would provide R'Zerah with the added advantage of returning his soul to his body. He would give R'Zerah both things: the elevation of his soul, and its return to his body. Or, possibly, Rabah estimated that in the course of the year, R'Zerah grew spiritually and elevated himself to the extent that he could accept the deepest secrets of the Torah while remaining a soul in the body.

On this, R'Zerah answered him, "miracles don't happen every day". He, R'Zerah, would like very much to experience this revelation, and would therefore love to join Rabah at his Purim feast, but since the ultimate will from Above is that the soul should remain in the body, he was worried. He was concerned that after his soul would depart from his body on account of the high revelation from Above, it would not want to return to the body. And who could be sure that Rabah would again be able to perform the miracle of returning R'Zerah's soul to his body, since, as he told Rabah, -miracles don't happen every day.

The code of Jewish law tells us that we are obligated to imbibe on Purim to the extent of "not knowing (how to discern between Mordecai and Haman)", without worrying that something negative might result from this. The spiritual corollary then, - is that we must learn with such a level of desire and love which enables us to grasp the deepest secrets of the Torah in a manner of "expiration" -of the soul departing from the body. The power to achieve this is granted to us on Purim. Everyone according to his own personal level must fulfill this "drinking" and cleaving to the secrets of the Torah without being concerned that it might lead to separation and isolation, (the opposite of the "soul being in the body"). Just the opposite, by fulfilling this obligation on the day of Purim, the person will have added energy to serve G-d during the entire year while turning this world a "dwelling place in the lower realms".

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, v.31, p.177)

Concept Corner

One of the most revolutionary concepts which the Ba'al Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement emphasized, is the idea of constant creation.

The physical world, according to this concept, is not a creation which took place once upon a time and thereafter remained in a state of created existence. Rather the universe is dependent upon a constant input, the universe, like a ray in the light of the sun, would just cease to exist.

The Baal Shem Tov based himself on the verse in Psalms which says "Forever, Your Word is established in the heavens" (Psalm 119), which the midrash says refers to the words of the ten creative utterances of Genesis. If so, says the Baal Shem Tov, then the words and the letters of the ten utterances are not one time events, to be discarded after the six days of creation, but they are permanent spiritual fixtures without which the universe would simply blink out of existence.

You might ask, how could a vast variety of mineral, vegetable, animal, and human creations have come into being from only the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet? The answer, as brought in Tanya (part two) is that the twenty-two letters can be combined, permuted, and substituted in such as way as to bring about a myriad number of creations. The letters constitute a sort of spiritual periodic table in which the basic elements are the letters themselves and different combinations thereof form the building blocks of creation. The ten utterances of Genesis are only the general categories of creation, but the more we combine, substitute, and permute the letters, the more creations are made.

It is no small feat to create a physical world. From the spiritual point of view, it is impossibly difficult to bridge the gap between the spiritual realm and the physical world. It's a little like operating a toaster with a million-watt electrical outlet. How do you keep from burning out and melting away the toaster? Part of the answer is to lower or contract the power coming from the outlet. This is called the "tzimtzum" or contraction, in Kaballa and Chassidut. The other part of the answer is to feed the power into the toaster in small increments, pulses, if you will. If the charge does not enter the appliance at full blast, the appliance will be able to withstand the current entering into it. The same is true of creation. If the creative power is fed in regulated increments, then the creation will be able to remain in a state of existence. Kaballa has a unique way of referring to this situation. It's called "ratzo v'shuv"- running and returning. Or, in other words, appearing and disappearing. If the G-dly energy is constantly entering and leaving, like a spiritual heartbeat, then the creation will be mantained.

We see this principle at work in the Megila of Purim as well. The scroll tells the story of how the Jewish Queen Esther ("Esther" is from the word "le'hastir" in Hebrew, meaning to hide) saved the Jewish people from the evil designs of the Persian minister, Haman. The thriller unwinds episode by episode, while never openly mentioning the name of G-d. Only when we arrive at the conclusion, does it become clear that His hand was operating from behind the scenes from the beginning to the end. Much as G-d plays "hide and seek" with creation, while nevertheless permeating it and controlling it, so also does He hide behind the mask of the Megila. Hidden in the story of Purim, He actually determines the whole story from beginning to end. Why does G-d work this way? If He were to make Himself obvious, there would be nothing to laugh about. He wants us to have the pleasure of seeking and, like a child laughing with delight, finding Him. That's what Adar is all about.