Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are serious days when we are asked to place God at the center of our lives, repent, and ask for forgiveness. However, no matter how much we try, most of us know that true repentance is very hard to come by. After all, most of us will likely revisit our old habits.
The effort it takes us to try to change old habits again and again, year after year, is often depressing – the fact that we keep on trying is a tremendous accomplishment. What is the point of trying every year, only to discover that we’ve returned to where we started? This can easily turn into torture.
Fortunately, humor, and the world of the fairytale, come to our aid.
We are all romantics and unwilling to be satisfied with our physical and spiritual lives. After all, there is more to life than we experience, and our goal is to achieve that “more.” We are struggling with the gap between how we believe our lives should be, and our everyday reality.
Sooner or later, there will be a kind of rapprochement between the two. The lack of satisfaction with our lives slowly gives way to the reality imposed on us. This is a process that starts early in our lives. As small children we are completely “authentic,” but as soon as the outside influences affect us, particularly from elementary school onward, we begin adapting and losing our real selves.
Puberty may slow this down a bit due to the rebellion of adolescence, yet by the time we enter the world as college graduates, seeking employment and a life partner, the “facts of life” form a kind of suit of armor, a harness, that we are unable to break out of.
This restrictive harness accompanies us for the rest of our existence. The result is often tragic, as with a painter returning to his painting for one last look. The artist is certain that the aim of his work has been achieved, but he also feels that something essential is missing.
He overlooked the “essence,” but owing to his “ suit of armor,” he is no longer able to discover what that should be. Dutch author Willem Bilderdijk (1756-1831) compared this feeling to an opera singer who is given a very small bathroom as a rehearsal room – it suffocates him.
Most people do not realize this, living happily in their harness in the bathroom! They have become trapped in the net of our society. Only great souls become aware of this and, often with great difficulty, discard their suit of armor.
They realize that they are peering through bars like prisoners, and once they see the garden of their lives, they bend the bars and walk out. These great souls venture outside the bathroom, they regularly clash with society and are frequently misunderstood, yet often they move society forward.
It requires humor in order to be able to take that big step.
Humor is what keeps us laughing despite everything. It is like conquered sadness, melancholy that has been punctured. The realization that we live in the midst of constant absurdity – the very absurdity that we are alive, that there is a universe, that we can think and have feelings and so much more – is beyond the pathetic.
It is metaphysical madness at its best. Even as we try to live a life of sobriety using logic, common sense, we still stare at the mystery of a life we cannot grasp, no matter how much we’ve convinced ourselves that we have it all “under control.” Humor is the result of the fact that while we realize that there is meaning behind this absurdity, we cannot figure out what that meaning consists of.
Rosh Hashanah is actually a day of infinite humor, for it confronts us with the folly of our life ambitions: to be admired, to acquire money and possessions, and so on. We are brought to realize that these ambitions shape our lives, which causes us to laugh about them and their value as we stand in the presence of God. After all, it is through the mundaneness and absurdity of human existence that God wants to meet us. Nothing is more humorous than that; God has a great sense of humor!
Rosh Hashanah demands even more. It demands of us to crown God and place Him at the center of our lives. Uncompromising monotheism, the belief that everything that exists is His handiwork and that He is everywhere, omnipotent, omniscient, and eternal is the goal.
There is no “Other” but God – yet we have no idea who He is! We are to crown a being who we do not know, nor do we know what He is or why He acts as He does. In fact, to the human mind, often God’s deeds make no sense, are unacceptable, and even cruel.
God is the great unknown to whom the words “existence” and “is” do not apply. How do you crown a being when you lack the slightest understanding of who He is, and sometimes even wonder if He is? This is the height of absurdity and humor. Crowning a being, that is not a “who,” “what” or “it,” but the ein sof, infinity, is virtually meaningless; it almost sounds like a joke, as if someone is deceiving us on the most serious day of the Jewish year!
Rosh Hashanah takes us back to our childhood, to our original, innocent authenticity. Rosh Hashanah asks us to let go of our years of maturing and their accompanying armor, and to re-experience our childhood as we stand in the present. At this time, we bring to the fore the gap between what we are and what we wanted to achieve before we fell into the “trap” of adulthood. This process constitutes humor of the highest order.
Fairy tales are the most favorite stories among children. The impossible is possible: flying creatures, houses built on clouds, princes turning into frogs, talking lions, wizards, and witches flying on broomsticks…
In short, a world where all definitions, logic, and common sense have been jettisoned. Nothing excites a child more than these stories. Why? In a fairy tale, children enter a world that has no boundaries or armor to block them. This is a reality perfectly suited to children, for they still possess an unlimited “capacity of faith” that allows them to revel in the impossible.
Above all, fairy tales are about desire, not fulfillment. The prince must defeat seven dragons, after which he must live as a frog for seven years before he can marry the princess. This aspect of the fairy tale is relayed in great detail.
However, once the prince fulfills his desire and marries the princess, the fairy tale ends. We are told nothing of the ensuing events other than “And they lived happily ever after.”
Real life begins where the fairy tale ends; a life that comprises the far more difficult task of marriage between two people – one of whom has been a frog for seven years, while the other has slept for a hundred years. The fairy tale is only about the journey, not about the arrival, real life.
We only really live after we leave the fairy tale behind us. We believe we have it all figured out, but later we suddenly realize that we never completely left the fairy tale and that we still long for it. Until the very last day of our lives we are occupied with the journey, and yet we realize we will never arrive. In fact, we do not even know what this arrival consists of.
However, that is what makes life so exciting; the desire for arrival keeps us alive, even though we do not know what that outcome is. We are on the wrong wavelength and only hear strange sounds and unusual noise. There is a serious transmission error. We cannot find the right connection because we are locked in our armor and too distant from the fairy tale. On Rosh Hashanah, we become aware again that we will never reach this wavelength.
Having to crown a being that we cannot fathom forces us, as it were, to believe in the fairy tales of the Divine. When we declare in our prayers that “God is King, God reigned, God will reign forever,” we enter a space in which all such expressions are beyond our intellectual abilities. We do not know what we are saying, and we sing – often filled with religious fervor – words we do not understand. This is sacred inadequacy, which is precisely why it is so meaningful.
We realize, then, that we are not tuned to the transmission of the transistor, which by definition is beyond our wavelength. And then we do what children do when they cannot find words: in frustration, they make incomprehensible sounds, grab a whistle or horn to produce strange sounds that belong to the world of fairy tales.
This is the meaning of the shofar. When words are no longer effective, we look for something else to get through and alleviate our frustration. And so, we begin to blow a strange sound in an attempt to break through all the celestial levels until it reaches the One who is totally unknown and unknowable.
With this, Judaism once again proves its genius. It turns the tables and asks us to overcome our negative feelings about our lives and instead celebrate the absurdity. It asks us to dress like kings and queens, eat tasty meals, sing optimistic songs, and make Rosh Hashanah a fantastic holy feast. If that’s not humor... In fact, it is Divine humor that tells us to live with this absurdity; a supreme holy quip that instructs us to live with a smile.
So we need to know on Rosh Hashana that we are on a journey but, blessed is God, there is no arrival! Still, the longing makes our lives significant.
The writer is dean of Jerusalem’s David Cardozo Academy and the author of many books, including the bestseller Jewish Law as Rebellion. Find his weekly essays at www.cardozoacademy.org/