The power of laughter — Isaacs legacy for survival

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Natan Sharansky had just been released from the Gulag. His last steps to freedom across the Glienicke Bridge connecting East and West Germany were seen around the world. Having reached the end of his almost nine-year ordeal in Soviet labor camps, he was well aware that there had been a worldwide campaign in his behalf.

What was he thinking about as he strode across that bridge? His years in prison? The future? Thoughts about thanksgiving and gratitude to God ?

When weeks later I asked him that question, Sharansky responded that he had been thinking about the pair of pants the Soviets had given him upon his release.

The pants were too large. As he took that famous walk to freedom, the overiding thought in his head was: "Oh God, please don't let my pants fall down!"

With all that he had endured, Sharansky was blessed with the ability to see the lighter side even in his darkest hours. Of course, this ability did not prevent him from appreciating the seriousness of the course he had taken, nor did it prevent him from reflecting deeply on his mission or feeling justifiably enraged at how grievously he had been mistreated.

His defiant courage in standing up to the Soviets was one of the finest hours of Jewish heroism in our century. Still, he never forgot how to see the humor in the situation.

For activists, laughter may be of particular importance. First of all, it's a reminder not to take oneself too seriously, especially in out-sized situations involving direct confrontation with power. Laughter, in such settings, teaches humility, restores one's sense of proportion.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the great Chassidic master, taught another lesson about laughter that the Jewish activist ought to remember:

"There is no peace in the world because there is too much anger. You can only make peace with joy."

Rare is the activist who is not to some degree angry. What the activist can learn from Rabbi Nachman's words is that joy — in this case laughter — can ameliorate the anger and hasten the peace. The activist whose larger goal is to fix the world laughs. Laughter is the pathway to redemption.

Folk-singing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach approached laughter differently. For him, laughter meant accepting whatever God doles out.

Once, Rav Shlomo offered his coat as a warm "bed" for a stray cat he had found in his hotel lobby. The cat soiled the coat and the housekeeping staff threw it out. Told he had lost his coat, the rabbi laughed. Never mind that in its pockets were his money, his passport, his plane tickets, his schedule. Still he laughed, accepting what God gave him.

We activists would do well to learn from Rav Shlomo — do our best, laugh and accept whatever happens for the good.

Interestingly, the Hebrew verb "to laugh," litzhok, is similar to the verb "to cry," lizok. In the Hebrew language the letters tzaddi and zayyin as well as het and ayin often interchange, rendering litzhok and lizok the same, thus illustrating the fundamental connection between laughter and tears.

Sometimes when looking at a child, it is difficult to know whether he or she is laughing or crying. On many occasions, I have sat with people in grief and been struck by the quick mood changes. Often, it was difficult to discern whether what I was witnessing were tears of laughter or of sorrow.

Perhaps the association in the Hebrew language between the words for laughing and crying can also teach a lesson about conquering despair. No matter how bleak the situation, no matter how dark the circumstances, no matter how profound the tears, laughter is not far away. One should never give up.

The second of our three patriarchs is called Yitzhak (Isaac) — which literally means "will laugh." He was given this name because his parents, Sarah and Avraham (Abraham), laughed when told that, at their advanced age, a child would be born to them. The commentators ask why was he called Yitzhak — "to laugh" in the future tense. He should have been called Tzahak — "he laughed."

It can be suggested that Yitzhak is in the future tense because it refers not only to him but to the totality of Jewish history. Just as Yitzhak was born against all odds and through his birth the covenant with Avraham and Sarah continued, so would his descendants face innumerable challenges, would time and again be counted out, but in the end would prevail.

A classic talmudic story echoes this idea. After the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Akiba and his colleagues were walking near the Temple Mount and saw a fox roaming among its ruins. Akiba laughed even as his colleagues began to weep.

Why are you laughing? his colleagues wondered. Why are you crying? Akiba retorted. The Temple is now in ruins, they said. Akiba responded: Until the prophecy that the Temple would be destroyed came true, I was unsure whether the prophecy of rebuilding would be fulfilled. Now that the Temple has been decimated, rebirth is certain.

Akiba's colleagues turned to him and said, "You have comforted us, Akiba, you have comforted us."

Such is the power of laughter. It must accompany us as we protest, Akiba, as we cry out. It's our way of declaring that in the end, against all odds, Am Yisrael chai — we will prevail.