Rabbi Twerski's last column: Surviving with humor

Humor is healthy, and laughter is one of the most effective medicines.

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Twerski (1930-2021). (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Twerski (1930-2021).
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 Editor’s note: Before Rabbi Twerski died in Jerusalem on January 31, 2021, he emailed this column (together with several others) for publication in The Jerusalem Report. We publish it here in loving tribute to a great man with a great sense of humor.
Great, populous empires that were firmly established in their own land and had conquered other countries – the Babylonian empire, the Hittite empire, the Egyptian empire, the Greek empire, the Roman empire – are historic relics, existing only in history texts. The history of the Jews, however, is one of unrelenting persecution, driven from their homeland and expelled from country after country, and suffering inquisition, decimating pogroms and the Holocaust, yet is one of miraculous survival. Some attribute their survival against all odds, at least partially, to Jewish humor.
While humor is indeed an invaluable asset, there are things that simply do not lend themselves to humor. Yet, Jews have been able to find some comfort even in the most serious conditions.
One Tisha Be’av (an annual fast day considered the saddest day in the Jewish calendar that marks a number of disasters in Jewish history, including the destruction of both Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple), a hassidic rebbe was crying incessantly, grieving over the loss of the Temple. The hassidim were afraid that his intense weeping could be harmful to him, so they sent in someone to try and distract him.
This hassid was very witty, and said, “The Rebbe is grieving because the Temple was burnt down? I can assure you, Rebbe, that the land retains its value.”
Certainly, individuals have been able to cope with adversity by injecting humor into difficult situations. One person stood by helplessly, watching fire consume his house. He danced, reciting the bracha, “Shelo asani goy,” that God did not make me a heathen. When asked why he was saying this bracha, he said, “If I had been a goy, my god would have been a statue, which would have been consumed by the fire. But because I am a Jew, my God lives even though my house is gone.”
Humor is healthy, and laughter is one of the most effective medicines. In Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins wrote how he laughed his way out of a disease which doctors had deemed incurable. There is abundant clinical evidence that supports this concept. 
While our Sifrei Mussar (ethical books) condemn letzanus, we must understand that letzanus means “mocking,” not “joking.” Letzanus refers to belittling or dismissing important things as being worthless, and this is indeed forbidden. Jokes that are in good taste are permissible and even desirable.
How you perceive something depends on your attitude. Many people in the shtetl were illiterate, so there was a town scribe who wrote letters for them. One woman dictated a letter to her son who had immigrated to America. She said, 
Dear Son,
I am, thank God, doing well. I earn my living by cleaning houses, and I can afford day-old bread. It has been pretty cold here, but thank God, I can close up the cracks in the wall with rags. Firewood is expensive, but I use the cooking flame for warmth. Thank God, I was able to get a second-hand coat for cheap.”
The scribe was outraged that the son in America is not supporting his mother, so he wrote, “At my old age I have to scrub floors to be able to afford day-old bread. The cold wind blows through cracks in the wall which I try to stuff with shmattes. I had to buy a second-hand coat. I can’t afford enough firewood.”
When the scribe read to her what he had written, she said, “Oy vey, I didn’t know how bad off I was!”
It’s all in the attitude.
THERE ARE a variety of techniques to inject humor into a situation. One of them is to exaggerate things to an absurdity.
A man called to say that his wife is severely depressed. She refused to leave the house because she had a lesion on her nose which was healing slowly. She was very self-conscious. He finally convinced her to come to see me.
When she entered my office, I said to her, “Wow! The television was right! All the networks devoted the morning news program to the lesion on Leah’s nose! The astronauts were taking pictures of Leah’s nose from outer space!”
Leah broke out in a laugh and said, “I’m ashamed of myself, making such a fuss about this little red spot on my nose.”
Stress and tension have been demonstrated to have damaging effects physically as well as emotionally, and if you drive a car, you cannot escape stress and tension. Sometimes it’s the chutzpadik who cuts in front of you, almost causing a collision, sometimes it’s the person who beats you to the scarce parking space, and sometimes it’s the stalled traffic which guarantees that you will miss your flight. But face it. Eating your heart out is not going to change things for the better. Inasmuch as backed-up traffic is quite common, one man carries a jar of bubbles in the car. He lowers the windows and blows bubbles. People in adjacent cars laugh, and this makes him laugh, too.
There is a story about a smart student who was walking over a bridge when he heard a cry for help. A man was in the water, struggling to stay afloat. There was a rope on the railing, so he threw the rope to the man, and shouted, “Give my regards to Leviathan!” He explained that he did this to help defuse the man’s panic, so that he could catch hold of the rope.
In my book It’s Not as Tough as You Think, I cited numerous incidents where we thought that we were in a terrible situation, but later realized that we had made mountains out of molehills. Injecting humor into such situations can shrink the mountains into molehills.
There are very few things that have escaped the Jewish sense of humor. We have jokes about antisemitism, about in-law problems, about tzoros (troubles) with children, about poverty, about unemployment, about rabbis, about doctors, about assimilation, and yes, even about our own religion. As long as the humor is in good taste and is not offensive, it can take the sting out of very difficult situations.
The Talmud relates that the prophet Elijah pointed out two people who merited Gan Eden (paradise). They circulated in the marketplace, and if they saw a person who was sad because he had suffered a loss, they would cheer him up and make him laugh. An upbeat spirit is essential even for Torah study. Before Rabbah bar Nahmani began his Torah lectures, he would say things to make his students laugh, and then, with profound reverence, would begin the lesson.
A friend of mine was diagnosed with a serious disease. We agreed that every day, he would send me a funny story and I would send one to him. His wife told me that this made a great difference in his attitude.
A while back, I wrote a book, Smiling Each Day, with stories from our Torah literature or our great personalities that can make one smile. A smile can make you happier, and if you smile at someone, that can lift the other person’s spirits, too.■