A Good Laugh
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Everyone enjoys a good laugh - but not every laugh is necessarily good. While humor can be used in a positive way to make people feel good, there is also a negative kind of humor that makes fun of people and puts others down.
This week's Torah portion alludes to both kinds of laughter, as we learn about the birth of our ancestor, Isaac (21:3), whose Hebrew name, Yitzchak, means laughter. His name refers to the laughing joy people felt when his mother, Sarah, already an old woman, gave birth to him after so many years of childlessness. On the other hand, we learn about Ishmael (21:9), who was so involved with mocking, hurtful, and dangerous 'jokes' that he had to leave his father's home.
While it's good to laugh, and help others laugh, let's make sure there is no hidden hurtfulness in our humor.
In our story, a boy learns that everything that gets a laugh isn't necessarily funny.
"GETTING THE PICTURE"
"This isn't funny, Jon," said Gary with a frown, pointing to the piece of paper stuck on his gym locker for all the guys to see. It was a funny looking caricature of Gary.
"No? So why did everyone laugh?" Jon retorted.
Gary was at a loss for words, and ripped the unflattering picture off the locker and stormed out of the locker room.
"The kid's got a problem if he can't take a joke," Jon said with a shrug. So maybe he had drawn him a little shorter and fatter than he really was, but that was what a caricature artist does! Besides, the picture was definitely funny.
Jon Sherman had liked to draw ever since he could remember, and he was good at it. Lately he had discovered that by making a few simple changes in a drawing, he could make hilarious caricatures of people and get everyone to laugh ... everyone except the person his drawings made fun of.
Later that day, Jon was daydreaming in chemistry class. The teacher, Mr. Kenney, tried hard to keep the kids interested, and he was very entertaining, going as far as speaking in funny imitation voices to get his points across. But today Jon just couldn't get into it.
He tried to pretend he was interested and take notes like the rest of the class, but soon enough his notes began to transform into doodles, and he found himself sketching the teacher. 'Gee, I never noticed his buck teeth before,' he thought as he sketched in an enormous pair of front teeth that could make Bugs Bunny jealous. 'And look at all those wrinkles...'
By the time he finished, he had Mr. Kenney looking like some strange sort of cross between a walrus and a walnut!
"Hey, let me see!" whispered his buddy, Daniel, who had caught a glance at the 'masterpiece' from the next desk over. Jon signed it with a flourish and quickly slipped him the page under the desk when the teacher wasn't looking. The drawing got passed around to a few other kids before it got back to Jon, giving the guys a good smile.
As the class was about to end, Mr. Kenney asked everybody to turn in their homework sheets from the night before. Jon turned in his paper and, like the rest of the kids, started packing up his things to make a quick bolt to the lunchroom when the bell would ring. But as he put away his notebook, he was puzzled to see that his homework was still there. Didn't he just hand his homework in?
Suddenly Jon felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he frantically searched through his papers for the cartoon he had drawn of the teacher that was suddenly nowhere to be found.
'Oh, no!' He had mistakenly passed it in to the teacher instead of his homework!! Jon started sweating as he saw Mr. Kenney casually leafing through the papers, and his heart nearly stopped when the teacher paused, looked strangely at one of the sheets, and then looked straight at him!
"Jon, please see me after class" he whispered.
'That's it. I'm thrown out of school, maybe for life!' he thought in a panic. 'Why did I ever draw that stupid picture? It really wasn't funny at all.' He promised himself that he would never make an insulting caricature again, if only he could somehow survive this nightmare.
The bell rang way too quickly, and Jon made his way, like a condemned man, to the front of the classroom. The teacher, looked him in the eye, and said, "Jon, I think you made a mistake and handed in the wrong paper, didn't you?"
The boy, too scared to speak, weakly nodded his head.
The teacher held up the drawing, looked it over, and asked, "Do you think this is funny?" Jon squirmed, and shook his head. But the teacher surprised him. "No, that's not true, it's very funny, I wanted to laugh myself when I saw it. It's funny, but it's wrong."
Jon, all confused but happy that he hadn't been kicked out of school yet, perked up his ears. "I know all about humor." Mr. Kenney went said. "You know those imitations I do? I didn't learn them over night. I've been doing them since I was your age. I used to do the funniest imitations of the nerdy kids and teachers in school. Boy could I make my friends howl!"
Jon started to smile, but then Mr. Kenney got this real serious look in his eye and banged his fist down on the desk to make a point.
"But I stopped! Because I realized that not everything that made people laugh was right to do, and that my jokes weren't really jokes at all, but put-downs in disguise."
There were a long few seconds of silence. "As you see, I still do funny imitations, but to teach people, not to hurt them." He leaned forward toward the boy. "Jon, I'm going to make a deal with you. I'm not going to have you suspended, though I could. But you have to promise me that from now on, you only use your talent to help people, and not hurt them. And to get you off to the right start, I want you to stay after school and come up with an absolutely hilarious caricature of 'Mr. Molecule,' the topic of tomorrow's class, and if it's good, there will be more. Is it a deal?"
Jon's head was spinning. Not only wasn't he getting thrown out, but the teacher was going to let him draw! He agreed, and apologized for his hurtful drawing, and was looking forward to beginning his new career as 'no more put-down' artist.
Q. How did Jon feel at first about his cartoons?
A. He felt that as long as they made people laugh it didn't matter if they hurt some people's feelings.
Q. How did he feel after he spoke with his teacher?
A. He felt sorry for what he did and realized that humor is only good if it doesn't hurt people.
Q. How can something be funny but be wrong?
A. A lot of things can make a person laugh, but sometimes that laughter can come at the hurtful expense of others. Then it's wrong. The right kind of humor is funny, but without putting anyone else down.
Q. Why did the teacher give Jon pictures to draw?
A. The teacher wanted to let Jon know that he didn't have to give up doing what he was good at and enjoyed, but just had to learn to use his talents positively. The teacher had learned that lesson when he was young, and wanted to pass it on.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Is there ever a time to use put-down humor?
A. Everything in God's world has its purpose, and this does too. For instance, the Torah teaches that it is a good thing to make fun of idolatry, to help people realize how pointless it is. But since this is something we rarely encounter, better we should focus on how to lift people up, and not put them down.
Q. Is "I'm only joking" ever a valid excuse to insult others?
A. More pain probably gets dished out behind those three words than almost any others. An insult is an insult, and wrapping it within a joke doesn't make it hurt any less than wrapping a poison pill in a sugar coating.