Yes, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are serious days. They require us to place God in the center of our lives and then to repent and ask forgiveness for our misdeeds.
But, let’s be honest. Many of us know that, however much we try, true repentance probably won’t happen and we’ll just fall back into our old ways. The effort involved in surviving this, year after year without becoming depressed, is nearly brutal. The fact that we keep on trying is an enormous human accomplishment. After all, what is the point of going through the motions only to discover that we are back where we were? It’s torturous!
How does one survive this?
Strangely enough, it’s humor that does the trick.
Here’s how it works. We are all romantics. What this really means is that we are not prepared to be content with our physical and spiritual lives. There is more to life than what we experience, and our goal is to achieve it. There is always a gap between what we want our life to be and what it is in reality.
But sooner or later, a kind of rapprochement develops between the two, which mainly consists of the fact that this lack of contentment with our lives slowly starts to give way to the reality that is forced on us. This process begins the moment we enter primary school. We are completely “authentic” at the start, but we slowly conform to the reality around us and lose our real self. During puberty, it may slow down a bit as a result of adolescent rebellion. But by the time we enter the world of higher education, get married, and become absorbed with “the facts of life,” it begins to be a kind of suit of armor, which we can no longer break out of and which will accompany us for the rest of our earthly existence. The result is often tragic. It’s like painters who believe they have completed a painting and just at the last moment realize that something is lacking. They turn back to have another look at their painting, and while they are sure that the objective of their work has indeed, more or less, been realized, they also know that something essential is missing and that they have somehow overlooked “the real thing.” But as a result of their armor, they cannot discover it. The great Dutch author Willem Bilderdijk (1756-1831) once compared this to an opera singer who gets a lavatory as a room in which to practice. It suffocates him.
But most people do not realize this and live happily in the bathroom wearing their armor. Our society anticipates this and catches us in its net.
Only great souls are aware of this and, often with much effort, throw off their armor and venture outside the bathroom. As a result, they frequently clash with society and are misunderstood. But they are also the ones who move society forward. They realize that they are like prisoners looking through the bars; and once they have seen the garden of their lives, they bend the bars and walk out.
But to do so requires humor.
What is humor?
Humor is that which keeps us laughing, despite everything. Humor is conquered sadness. It is the melancholy that you pierce through and then profit from. It is the affirmation of our superiority over all that goes wrong. It is also the awareness that we live in the midst of continuous absurdity which, if we take a step backwards, makes us realize that even if we attempt to live a life of soberness — using all our faculties of logic, common sense and joy — we will still end up staring at the mystery of living a life we cannot grasp and will never understand no matter how much we’ve convinced ourselves that we have it all “under control.” Humor teaches us that there is meaning behind absurdity, although we can’t figure out what that meaning actually is.
But most of us miss the joke and walk around with a sad face. Interestingly enough, it was the victims of the Holocaust who, under impossible and most cruel circumstances, saw the absurdity of it and sometimes managed to use a wry form of humor regarding their situation, to help see some (religious) meaning behind it. (See Eliezer Berkovits, With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps, Sanhedrin Press, NY & London, 1979.) It kept them alive. No one will doubt that this was a phenomenal human accomplishment that only a few could achieve.
A Dutch proverb describes it well: Humor is the trainer for the game of life.
And so, Rosh HaShanah is a day of infinite humor, because it confronts us with all the absurdity and foolishness of our life’s ambitions — receiving honor, acquiring money, accumulating material possessions, and more. But we also realize that these ambitions shape our lives with the purpose of having us laugh about them in the presence of God, because it is God who has, strangely enough, created this condition. It is through the everydayness, the trivialities, and the absurdity of human existence that God wants to meet us. Nothing could be more serious, humorous, or odd. It is a type of funfair, but with the misfortune of having a merry-go-round that often becomes badly dislocated, causing people to get hurt and even die.
But that’s not all.
Rosh HaShanah asks us to re-crown God and put Him in the center of our lives. It is a festival of uncompromising monotheism, the belief that all that exists is His handiwork and that He is everywhere. He is transcendent, immanent, omnipotent, omniscient and eternal. There is no “Other” but God.
This means that we are trying to crown a Being about Whom we have not the slightest clue. We don’t know Who He is, what He is, and why He does the things He does, which often make no sense, are unacceptable, and even cruel. He is the great Unknown to Whom the words “Exist” and “Is” don’t even apply, since these definitions are sorely deficient.
This is the pinnacle of absurdity and humor. How do you crown a Being when you haven’t the slightest comprehension of who He is, and sometimes even wonder whether He is? It is rather pathetic.
It is this type of paradox that is at the center of Rosh HaShanah. We try to accomplish something which, by definition, is completely impossible. So why even try?
Crowning a Being that is not a Who, a What, or an It, but only an Ein Sof, an “Endless End,” and an Infinite, makes no sense whatsoever. It sounds like a bad joke, like someone is pulling the wool over our eyes on the most serious day of the Jewish year.
And here again is the humor. Rosh HaShanah takes us back to our childhood; back to our pre-school innocent authenticity. We are asked not to comply with our maturity, which was developed by our armor during high school and later in life. Rather, we are asked to go back to being romantics, feeling discontent with our lives, and re-experiencing the gap between what we are and what we wanted to achieve before we fell into the “trap” of maturity. This is humor of the highest order.
Which stories are children’s favorites? No doubt fairy tales! And which are the most popular fairy tales? The ones that are completely incomprehensible, in which the impossible takes place: flying animals; houses built on clouds; princes turning into frogs; lions that can speak; wizards and witches who travel on brooms. It is a world in which all definitions, logic, and common sense are violated. But nothing excites a child more than these stories. Why? Because in the fairy tale, the child enters a world where there are no limits, where omnipotence and transcendence are obvious because there is no armor to block them. There is the capacity to believe in something that is impossible and therefore “true” in the realm of eternity. It is the expression of an unlimited “faith capacity” that the child demonstrates.
But there is still more. All fairy tales are about yearning, not fulfillment. (1) The prince has to defeat the seven dragons, after which he must live seven years as a frog before he can marry the princess. This is narrated in great detail. But once he has married the princess, the fairy tale comes to an end. All we are told is that they “lived happily ever after.”
And this is as it should be, because real life begins where the fairy tale ends. The fairy tale is concerned with the engagement. But life deals with the much more difficult task of the marriage between two people, one of which has been a frog for seven years, and the other has slept for a hundred years. In the fairy tale, there is total silence regarding what happens afterwards. It only tells us about the journey, not the arrival.
Paradoxically, this describes our lives. We live a real life only after we have left the fairy tale of our lives. We believe we’ve got it all together. But later in life we suddenly realize that we never left the fairy tale. Until the last day, we are still busy with the journey and realize that we will never arrive. In fact, we don’t even know what this arrival consists of. It is beyond our grasp. And it is exactly that which makes life so exciting. The longing keeps us alive. We may tell ourselves that we have arrived, but we simultaneously realize that the happiness we caught along the journey starts repeating itself now that we have arrived, and the dragon of boredom consumes us. The story then comes to an end.
Many mature people, especially those who have religious souls, experience this when they sing religious songs with fervor and devotion but have not the slightest clue what these songs mean. They are on a journey and are longing to understand, but they know it will never fully happen.
One just has to think about the Jewish women and men who say their daily kapitel Tehillim (chapter of Psalms) while, for the most part, having not the slightest clue what these psalms actually mean; or, the Jewish children who are asked to sing Anim Zemirot (an almost incomprehensible kabbalistic song) in the synagogue on Shabbat morning. They will sing the song with great devotion, knowing that it touches on something most holy, far beyond their comprehension. The synagogue members who respond to the children with every second verse also have no clue about what they are singing, but in no way does this lessen its spiritual meaning. In fact, it only adds, because it is pure. It is the journey that keeps them fascinated. The armor of maturity has been thrown off, and the impossible becomes possible, but still incomprehensible.
The same takes place in church, where people sing Latin Gregorian songs without knowing a word of Latin and where the translation is even more unintelligible. They do this in an uncomplicated but most devoted way, with the conviction that something enormous is at stake. And this is true.
In all these cases, the songs are fairytale-like and consequently of utmost beauty.
This is certainly not a plea for singing only religious songs that are incomprehensible, but it is to remember that these songs are of the greatest importance because they confront us with the meaning behind the absurdity of life, which is revealed in these fairytale-like songs with which all of us live. In some way, they tell us that the songs we do understand are ultimately just as much a part of the absurdity as those we do not understand. They confront us with the ineffable, the mysterium magnum. They restore us to our rightful place. They turn us into children, which we have always been and always will be however much we want to deny this. We are still traveling.
The problem is that there is a wisdom “out there,” which is transmitted on a wavelength that is out of range of our spiritual transistor’s frequency. Yes, we turn on the radio, but we’re only able to hear some strange noises and unusual static. There is a serious transmission failure. We can’t find the pipelines because we have become locked in our armor and are too far removed. This is the only human condition known to us. And on Rosh HaShanah, we become aware that we will never catch this wavelength.
Therefore, Rosh HaShanah is of the greatest importance. Having to crown a Being whom we cannot fathom forces us to believe in the fairy tales of the Divine. When we state in our prayers that “God was King, is King and will forever be King,” we enter a space where all such expressions are completely beyond our intellectual capacity. We do not know what we are saying. It is all holy absurdity. And consequently, it is most significant.
For this reason, there is an interplay of words in our prayers, when we laud God as the King but then at a certain moment are silenced by our awareness that all these expressions are deficient. We realize that our words are completely inadequate and we are not tuned in to the transistor’s transmission, which by definition cannot reach us.
We then do what children do when they cannot find the words. They start looking for other ways to overcome the problem. Sometimes, out of frustration, they’ll make incomprehensible sounds to let off steam and simultaneously try to reach a level that no words can reach. In that case, they may take a whistle, or other blow toy, and produce strange sounds that belong to the world of fairy tales.
This is the purpose of the shofar. When words are no longer effective, we look for other ways to pull through and release our frustration. And so we start to blow a strange sound that can pierce through all heavenly levels until it makes it to the One Who is totally unknown.
And somehow we have a good laugh over it. What do you do when absurdity and inadequacy hits you? You can become depressed and melancholic. But here Judaism proves its genius. It turns the tables on us and asks us to overcome our negative feelings and instead celebrate this absurdity. It asks us to dress like kings and queens, have tasty meals, sing optimistic songs, and turn Rosh HaShanah into a fantastic holy celebration.
It is all a cavalcade of our lives and therefore very serious.
“To live is like to love — all reason is against it, and all healthy instinct for it,” said Samuel Butler.
It is divine humor that tells us to continue to live with this absurdity; and supreme holy witticism that asks us to live with laughter. We are asked to enjoy the journey and realize that there is no arrival.
Tizku le-shanim rabot.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Times of Israel