God & Humor

Poking fun at the Master of the Universe

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The belief in chosenness causes most Jews to assume that God has a warm spot for them in His heart. On this planet, however, the existence of this warm spot, for Jews or anyone else, is far less apparent.

Indeed, a series of Yiddish sayings suggests that God can be capricious. Mann trakht und Gott lakht, runs the most famous: "Man makes plans [literally thinks] and God laughs." And Woody Allen has cynically defined Yom Kippur as the "sacred holiday commemorating God's reneging on every promise."

God the Joker?

In the guise of pious wonder stories, one even finds talmu­dic folktales poking fun at God's capriciousness. In one of these tales, set in the first century B.C.E., a terrible drought has befallen Israel, and "the people sent a message to Honi the Circle Drawer [a well-known saint and miracle-worker]: 'Pray that rain may fall.' [Honi] prayed and no rain fell. He thereupon drew a circle and stood within it.... He exclaimed [before God]: 'Mas­ter of the Universe, Your children have turned to me because [they believe] me to be a member of Your house. I swear by Your great name that I will not move from here until You have mercy upon your children."

God's response?

"Rain began to drip down and [Honi's] disciples said to him: 'We look to you to save us from death' [i.e., such a drizzle won't help us at all].... Thereupon, he exclaimed: 'It is not for this that I have prayed, but for rain [to fill] cisterns, ditches, and caves."

Now that Honi has made it clear to God what is needed, does the Lord send an appropriate response? No.

"The rain then began to come down with great force, every drop being as big as the opening of a barrel, and the sages estimated that no drop was less than [the equivalent of the con­tents of six eggs]. His disciples then said to him: 'Master, we look to you to save us from death, we believe that the rain [now falling] came down to destroy the world.'

"Thereupon, he exclaimed before [God], 'It is not for this that I have prayed, but for rains of benevolence, blessing and bounty.' Then rain fell normally" (Ta'anit 23a).

Does not this talmudic tale suggest that God is the primordial joker? Only when He has "used up his tricks," a drizzle and then a deluge, does God send the kind of rain that He knows the Jews needed all along.

Excerpts from pages 143-147 from Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, copyright (c) 1992 by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Inc. (William Morrow).

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of Jewish Literacy and Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, along with other widely-read books on Judaism and the "Rabbi Daniel Winter" murder mysteries. He lives in New York City and lectures widely throughout North America.