No Laughing Matter

It’s never a good idea to analyze a joke. All the same, I recently found myself deconstructing a stand-up comedian’s one-liner quoted in a newspaper article. It may have been because Rosh Hashana was approaching.

“I used to do drugs,” the hapless performer had deadpanned. “I still do, but I used to, too.”

Why was the line funny? It could be that the comedian had simply found an amusing, absurd way to characterize his long-time substance abuse. But what I think he meant to communicate was something more: that he had once (perhaps more than once) quit his drugs, only to re-embrace them. When he was clean, he “used to do drugs”; now, fallen off the wagon, he does them once again.

And so my thoughts, understandably (no?), went to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year holiday characterized by the Talmud as an annual day of Divine judgment. Its two days begin the ten-day period in the Jewish calendar – ending with Yom Kippur – that constitute the “Days of Repentance.”

No, I don’t abuse drugs. I take my daily blood-thinner responsibly, pop an occasional Tylenol and have a glass or two of red wine with Sabbath meals, but that’s about it. Nevertheless, I related well to the comedian’s self-description. Because I find myself resolving each year to improve in some of the very same ways I had resolved to improve the year before. Indeed, the years – plural – before, in more cases than I care to ponder. I, too, “used to” do things that I currently do too.

Among the collected letters of the late Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, the famed dean of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn from 1940 through the 1960s, is one that was written to a student whose own, earlier, letter to Rabbi Hutner had apparently evidenced the student’s despondence over his personal spiritual failures. The yeshiva dean’s response provides nourishing food for thought.

Citing the saying that one can “lose battles but win wars,” Rabbi Hutner explains that what makes life meaningful is not beatific basking in the exclusive company of one’s “good inclination” but rather the dynamic struggle of one’s battle with the inclination to sin.

King Solomon’s maxim that “Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up” (Proverbs, 24:16), continues Rabbi Hutner, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to gets up again.” What it really means, he explains, is that it is only and precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles – even the failures – are inherent elements of what can, with determination and perseverance, become an ultimate victory.

Rabbi Hutner’s words are timely indeed at this Jewish season, as thoughtful Jews everywhere recall their own personal failures. For facing our mistakes squarely, and feeling the regret that is the bedrock of repentance, carries a risk: despondence born of battles lost. But allowing failures to breed hopelessness, says Rabbi Hutner, is both self-defeating and wrong. A battle waged, even if lost, can be an integral step toward an ultimate victory to come. No matter how many battles there may have been, the war is not over. We must pick ourselves up. Again. And, if need be, again.

Still, it’s a balancing act. The knowledge, after the fact, that falling isn’t forever cannot permit us to treat sin lightly. Even while not allowing failures to leave us dejected, we must maintain the determination to be to be better people tomorrow than we are today. If, after raising ourselves from the ground, we don’t renew the battle with resolve, if we become complacent about our sins, seeing them not as boons to redoubled effort but as fodder for jokes, we flirt with true failure – the ultimate kind.

The article containing the one-liner, as it happens, was an obituary. The comedian who “used to do drugs” and still did died of an overdose, at 37.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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1 Response

  1. Tal says:

    So Mitch Hedberg is now officially on Cross Currents? Wow…

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