(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...mi'ut s'chok, minimizing levity*...
(Exodus 27:17) Kol amudei he-chatzer saviv m'chushakim kesef... All of the posts surrounding the courtyard shall be banded in silver...
In the notes I made last summer for this column, I wrote, "good luck!" I'm not sure if I meant that finding a connection between levity and the construction of the Tabernacle was going to require that luck, or if a prescription coming from me about minimizing humor was certain to be met with skepticism. While I prefer to think it was the former...
With that caution in mind, I note that the Torah turns now to the first extended stretch of sometimes stupefying detail about the Tabernacle and its appurtenances. An architect, construction worker or engineer might have a professional interest in this material. A devoted religious scholar might find opportunity for sacred insight. But reading these details from the distance of thousands of years of relevance can be a challenging exercise. Even the traditional commentators seem to go on virtual hiatus as the straightforward reportage proceeds, clinging to the occasional grammatical anomaly or brief suggestion of human interaction.
The verses cry out for illustrations. Alas, none is to be found in the entire scroll – or most later printed versions. This sudden departure from the rich stories of origin, enslavement and liberation and the provocative wealth of moral instruction creates a tension: are all the good parts over, we wonder. We start flipping ahead, counting the chapters to the Golden Calf.
Usually, when I find myself in a tense or boring situation (and more so when the situation is both tense and boring), I make a joke. Everyone feels better after a chuckle, and better still after a laugh. And if I can exploit the absurdity of the juxtaposition of an awe-inspiring image ("Let them make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst," God promises in 25:8) with "here a cubit, there a cubit" in the next 88 verses, then the screeching halt to which the Torah seems to come is a little more bearable.
Almost twenty years ago, I wrote a book of Jewish humor. It is long out of print (mercifully), though it had enough success in its time to go through three printings, a pretty good record for a "trade paperback." When it first appeared, I was in the midst of applying for a new pulpit. Though I ultimately landed in Alexandria, the first job offer I had was in upstate New York. A very courageous, learned and refined rabbi was retiring from the congregation he had lovingly built, and the search committee was looking for someone with the spirit to continue his legacy. They felt that my forthcoming book was an indication that I could imbue their congregation with renewed spirit.
Somehow, the retiring rabbi got his hands on a copy of my new book even before I did. And he was distressed. A man who appreciated the gentle humor of Jack Benny was unimpressed by the edgier humor of "Saturday Night Live." We had a polite but tense conversation; he ended by affirming that I would indeed be a reasonable successor to him; I called the chair of the search committee and withdrew my name from consideration, not wishing to walk on eggshells around a deservedly beloved emeritus. The humor book had become the center of my rabbinate in that congregation, and even in my relative immaturity and arrogance, I knew there would be no way I could be taken seriously as a teacher of Torah. Humor should break tension, not cause it. Humor should enhance learning, not prevent it.
The allegedly boring and irrelevant details of construction actually hold a clue to the reason too much humor is an obstacle to God's presence. The word s'chok (levity) does not appear anywhere in the portion, nor does anything remotely associated with laughter and humor. (A guest appearance by our father Isaac, whose name means "laughter," would have made this column a lot easier to write!) But a word with the same three root letters, arranged in a different order, indeed appears. It is m'chushakim, and it means "banded." The wooden poles of the Tabernacle were banded with silver, likely as an embellishment or reinforcement. The poles were not to be made of silver – that much silver would have been both wasteful and not fit for the purpose of the poles. But something ordinary like wood, with just a touch of something bright and sparkling, could become both functional and beautiful.
It took me a long time to understand that the laugh should serve the situation, not vice versa. Minimizing levity does not mean enjoying a good joke any less. It means not allowing the humor to crowd out the learning.
How can you practice mi'ut s'chok? I think the answer lies in mindfulness and intentionality. Most of us have cultivated a sense of humor, and it enables us to see every situation with our own quirky brand of silliness and/or wit. At least once a day, when a humorous perspective or remark rises in your mind, hold it in your consciousness before giving it expression. Ask yourself what has provoked the humor, and what it reveals about the circumstance that requires a little deeper understanding or attention. Once you have identified the underlying tension that makes a joke necessary, you will know that the humor enhances the situation. It does not obscure it.
*Six values in a row include the word mi'ut, meaning, "minimizing." It is worth a moment to speak of asceticism and its place in our lives.
We live in a consumer society. While many people have become expert in exercising self-control over larger or smaller parts of their lives, our restraint is reactive rather than proactive. A dieter responds to excess weight; a person quits smoking in spite of a nicotine dependency; a family reduces expenses because the household budget must be reduced. While the conspicuous consumption of American society may be good reason to examine our self-indulgence, these six values reflect a stream of thought inherent in Judaism that is more Eastern than Western in orientation: acquisitiveness is the enemy of inquisitiveness. An emphasis on things and pleasure interferes with matters of the spirit and enlightenment.
That message is unpopular among the economically comfortable American population. And it is not my goal to upend the benefits of relative affluence by suggesting that your gym membership or subscription to HBO stands between you Torah. (I have both.) But mi'ut is not a limited tactic; it is a way of thinking and a way of living. In kabbalistic terms, I might compare it to tzimtzum, conscious self-contraction, the way in which God made room in this world for something other than God's own Self. The process is global, not local.
Please consider this context in reflecting on this reading.