Sunday, December 18, 2016

It's Just a Joke!

Rav Lipman Podolsky z"l 

One of the characteristics of the American society in which I grew up was the constant craving to play practical jokes. Whether it was a pail of water over the door, a hand-buzzer, or simply a derisive nickname, a good laugh was had by all. By all, that is, except for the victim. Of course, he could not reveal his embarrassment. To do so would earn him the additional label of a poor sport. "Can't you take a joke? It's just a joke! Come on, where's your sense of humor?"

So the victim swallowed his humiliation while his self-esteem slowly eroded. Often, the victim, such a successful butt of practical jokes, is repeatedly targeted. He has no idea how to extricate himself from the incessant antics of his "friends", and so a vicious cycle ensues. Years later, his "friends" have long forgotten him. But he has been left scarred.

What is the Torah's opinion of so-called practical jokes? Are they truly as amusing as they seem?


"The righteous one flourishes like Tamar (Tehillim 92:13)." Indeed, Tamar was truly a paradigm of righteousness. Destined to mother the future Moshiach, Tamar was uniquely suited for her role. Her character shines forth like a rare gem.

But what was so special about her? A cursory reading of her tale leaves us bewildered. So many questions arise concerning her behavior. Although it is beyond the scope of this short article to address these issues in depth, it is our intent to focus on one very important aspect of Tamar's character.

When Yehuda was informed that Tamar had committed adultery, he immediately sentenced her to death. Tamar was dragged to the square for execution. Just before being burned at the stake, she took the three signs she had received from Yehuda and exhibited them before the public. "By the man to whom these belong I am with child... Identify, if you please, whose are this signet, this wrap, and this staff." Yehuda recognized his possessions and confessed. Now is not the time to discuss why it was permissible for Yehuda to have relations with Tamar. Rather, I would concentrate our attention on a different facet.

Note that Tamar did not reveal Yehuda's identity. Had Yehuda not confessed (normal human behavior given Yehuda's important political position and the extent of humiliation involved), Tamar would have been put to death as an adulteress, her reputation forever maligned. Why did she not accuse Yehuda directly? Why did she allow him the option of remaining silent, thus resigning herself to an ignominious death?

Our sages could conclude only the following: "It is preferable for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than to publicly humiliate his friend. From whom [do we derive this]? From Tamar...(Brachos 43b)" Read those words with the utmost scrutiny. Tamar taught us an unforgettable lesson. Public humiliation is akin to murder. Better to die rather than to murder.

Let us also realize that there are early authorities who take this teaching quite literally (Tosfos Sotah 10b; Shaarei Teshuva3:139). According to their opinion, this teaching is considered Halacha l'Maaseh, a practical Halacha for our times. And though there are dissenting opinions (Meiri Sotah 10b), it remains a bona fide halachic disagreement which requires a Sh'eilas Chacham to decide (See Minchas Shlomo I:7).

Now how do we feel about "practical jokes"? It's just a joke! Where's your sense of humor? Can't you take a joke? One person's joke is another person's death! In some ways it can lead to a lingering death, a death that repeats itself many times over throughout a lifetime of depression and dysfunction.

Times are precarious. We are on the threshold of something big. Now is the time to unite. To realize that we are all one. One body; one soul.