January 19, 2020

Why I Laugh Even When Nothing’s Funny

Photo from Pexels

When Shabbat ends, we light a braided candle, look at our fingernails near the fire, bless a cup of overflowing wine, sniff spices and say the Havdalah prayers. All of these actions symbolize beautiful concepts.  

The braided candle represents the many uses for fire, and we look at our fingernails to remember the nail-like clothing Adam and Eve wore. The cup of wine we recite “borei pri hagafen” over signifies the abundant blessings we will receive the following week, and the spices comfort our soul, because the extra soul from Shabbat has departed. We round it all off with the Havdalah prayers, and then whoever has said the prayers drinks the wine. 

There is one thing my husband and I do that’s a bit different from a typical Havdalah ceremony. After “borei pri hagafen,” we laugh. 

My husband is Sephardic — his family is thought to be among those that escaped the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and went to Turkey. He grew up in a Moroccan synagogue, where the entire congregation would laugh when they did Havdalah every week.  

When I was converting to Judaism, I asked my now mother-in-law why we laughed. “To bring laughter and joy into the new week!” she exclaimed.

The end of Shabbat is always hard for me. I’ve just spent 25 hours praying in synagogue, connecting to HaShem, listening to great sermons, hanging out with friends and eating amazing food. Then, suddenly, I have to go back into the “real world.” There are text messages and emails waiting for me. I have to take my car into the shop. The house is messy. There are so many things to do. Week after week, it’s always the same.

Shabbat is usually the only time I take a real break. I let the dishes sit in the sink, ignore my cellphone and don’t worry about what’s happening in the news or how much money is in my bank account. I can just connect to my loved ones and HaShem without interruptions. Today, as our lives become increasingly busy, Shabbat is more important than ever. And so is laughing.

By laughing during Havdalah, I can take the joy of Shabbat with me. I can remember the laughter when I’m on deadline, scrambling to file a story. I can remember it when it’s 10 p.m. and I still have two hours of cleaning to do. I can remember it when I wake up and have tons of emails in my inbox. I can remember it when I’m swiftly cooking a meal for the 10 people coming over the next Friday night. 

In addition to being stressed out in our personal lives, we’re surrounded by uncertainty and anxiety. The media perpetuate the doomsday idea and keep us all fearful. There is 24-7 breaking news. Russia is always about to undermine the U.S. Iran has weapons. Our president could face impeachment. And, oh yeah, the apocalypse is near. It helps during these crazy times to laugh. 

According to Rabbi David Bassous, classic Jewish teachings tell us to smile even if we aren’t feeling joyous, because eventually we will become happy. I feel that. Even if I have to force myself to laugh during Havdalah, if I hear my husband laughing or another person in our shul has a funny giggle, I start to really laugh, and the happiness overcomes me. 

The world will always be crazy. Life will always be busy. 

But by laughing in the face of stress, uncertainty and anxiety, and by laughing even if we don’t feel like it, we can slowly spread the light of the Havdalah candle —  first into our own lives, and then into others, and then to the entire world.  

Kylie Ora Lobell is a contributing writer at the Jewish Journal.