Saturday, January 06, 2007

I'm Not Laughing

As a kleine kindt, I once heard it asked as to why, when someone falls down, people around the event are inclined to laughter. Our teacher at the time, a melamud, fresh out of kollel, replied "When a person falls here on Earth, the angels above are laughing." My initial reaction was one of unquestioning compliance. After all, I was just seven years old and assumed that everyone was in agreement with that statement. Although until that time I had seldom laughed at another's misstep, from then on, I certainly didn't want to be left out from the fun and would laugh heartily, albeit with some inner reservations that I didn't recognize until much later.

It is amazing what makes sense at seven that can't even be remotely justified in later years. If someone is still holding the same opinions for the very same reasons now as he or she did when they were seven or eight, something is very wrong with that person. I came to learn that laughing at another's misfortune is not only impolite, but downright cruel. It contradicts everything that we are taught regarding empathy and Ahavas Yisroel. I mean c'mon. If your Rebbe or another distinguished Rov or close relative were to slip and fall, would you actually find it funny? How about if your employer fell down a flight of stairs? Would you guffaw, snort, or chortle? Not bloody likely. As we grow we know the pains that others suffer.

My first question is to why angels think it funny when man falls down and breaks a leg or bruises himself up. This is based in the old adage that "Pride goeth before a fall"; a phrase used to reinforce the notion that ga'avah ultimately leads to certain demise. Apparently, when man's pride is humbled by misfortune, the joy in heaven becomes so contagious that even mankind, a small part divine himself, cannot help but join in the laughter. There is the assumption, based upon Hashgacha, that when a man is knocked down, it is because he needs to be for some reason. Upon such an event, HaShem is happy the man learned his lesson, his debt was paid , and he moves on. Imagine the paranoia the victim must feel knowing that he or she somehow deserves the injury and then compound that with the added insult of angelic mirth resounding across shamayim. That's gotta sting.

Let's follow this 'logic' to its bitter end. Divine Providence is personal and specific. Therefore, HaShem doesn't punish anyone without good reason; reason specifically designed to fit the individual. Therefore, if a man slips and falls down, this event was orchestrated with very certain intent. In truth, nobody ever 'falls' down; anyone who falls has really been deservedly knocked down by HKBH (aka Mike Tyson.)

The real test of this theory came when my father o'h, due to severe arthritis and an icy sidewalk, took a hard tumble on the wintery street, nearly breaking an arm in the process. I had actually debated whether or not to laugh! Then I wondered if not laughing would be some kind of sin in failing to acknowledge the raucous hilarity that must have been going on in the Olam HaElyon. Making the malachim mad is one thing, but an angry Russian father, with a nearly broken arm and a bad temper, is not the sort of being a small kid wants to challenge. Had I dared laugh at his plight, I probably would have been beaten senseless by his good arm; my justification of said laughter notwithstanding. I can imagine my father's reply going something along the lines of "Malachim laugh. I can't do much about that. But you, I can still give a good petch. Then they can laugh at both of us." Kibud Av (or Yiras Av) always trumps anything and everything you learn in Kitah Gimel.

One would think that the 'logic' behind all this would apply to everyone equally, but it doesn't. Apparently, there are some who are exempt from this rule. When certain members of the rabbincal elite fall prey to disease or infirmity, the chasidim tend to blame themselves for his declining health. That's right. When the chasidim get sick, it's their fault and when their Rebbe gets sick, it's their fault, too. Since they cannot fathom their holy leader as possessing a flaw capable of bringing about a TKO from the Eybeshter, they transfer the blame onto themselves to protect their image of the revered leader. Notice how no one ever asks the Rabbi himself how he feels about the incident.

There is yet another league above the aforementioned 'takers-on' of the guilt and fault game. This next group are what I call the 'Differentiators'. They admit that their Rebbe has flaws, but that his flaws are not of the same sort as our own. They cite the case of Moshe Rabeinu, who although a great navi and general, was punished by HaShem for a small infraction that didn't even involve a defined mitzvah. The Talmud tells us that "Tzadikim are judged by a hair's width", implying a completely different meter of divine judgment. Actions considered meaningless or inert, for you and I, would be considered terrible aveyros for the Tzadik. He remains a Tzadik in relation to us, but has his own problems on his level.

Now I used think, even back then, that this double standard was pretty stupid overall and downright unfair to tzadikim. After all, if righteousness is determined by the fulfillment of Taryag Mitzvos, then what other objective standard exists that would influence HaShem's decision making processes? Punishing a man for something that you haven't declared outright to be wrong seems rather unjust. It makes the seemingly righteous appear not very righteous at all by establishing another, albeit unwritten and undefined, standard on their behalf. In the end, if we accept this notion, then the tzadik is punished more severely than the rasha! It makes no sense. If that were the case, why bother to be righteous?

Then I thought about it some more and came, by way of analogy, to a different conclusion altogether. My father was a licensed electrician. Let's say that he was hired, based upon his expertise, to install a chandelier in your dining room. Let's say he screwed up the job and not only did the chandelier refuse to light up, but the wiring started a fire in your ceiling, causing thousands of dollars in damages to your home. Based upon my father's alleged expertise and training, which you relied upon to hire him, there comes an expectation of reliability. When he messes up, you also judge him according to what he claimed to be in order to get the job. You now have a legal and moral recourse to go after my father for compensation.

Let's say, on the other hand, you were a cheap bastard who really didn't think it was necessary to hire a professional to do the job and you asked your cousin Shmerle, a self-proclaimed master of everything, to hang the fixture. Shmerle climbs down from the ladder, flips the switch and a fire starts in your ceiling. Who do you sue now? Can you take Shmerle to court? Not hardly. You may not ever invite your idiot cousin to another simcha, but in court, you can't ask him for a nickel. Shmerle cannot be judged on the same standard as would a licensed and trained professional. Shmerel may have looked just like an electrician when playing one, but inside, Shmerle was 'winging it'.

Rightly or wrongly, we look at those we consider Tzadikim as true professionals of their chosen craft. Perhaps they're judged on a different scale because they are operating on a different plateau in terms of knowledge and experience. I may be putting on my tefillin in exactly the same minhag as the Apter Rov, but his insides and mine likely indicate a very different process. As a trained 'professional', the Rov is judged by his own level of trade; if not by men, as we are unqualified, then certainly by HaShem. It may not be a big deal for Shmerle to leave a ground wire unconnected or forget to place the cover plate back on the outlet, but for one who is expert and conscientious in his work, such oversights may hold serious repercussions.

Just as the licensed electrician bears the responsibility and liability of his title, so too does the Tzadik. It isn't all about money for the better tradesmen. It's about the honor and the dignity of a job well done. In essence, this is the true motivation behind the perfect mitzvah. As the Mishnah in Avos says " Do not be as workers who labor for pay, but rather as workers who labor without thinking just about the money." There is an internal sense of honor that comes with a job well done that distinguishes the tzadik from the average Shmerle, even if their outwardly appearances seem identical and the chandelier lights up just fine. Someone who is just 'winging it' will not see the consequences of those things he considers as trivial.

For the Tzadik, trivialities are important. He sees his work as the Mishnah in Avos says "Consider a mitzvah kala as a mitzva chamurah". There are no trivialities and nothing without some attached and almost inevitable consequence. The differences don't become apparent until something goes horribly wrong. In mundane terms, a good worker does more than a good job. He lives it and good work flows naturally from his good attitude.

None of this means that I am comfortable with anyone laughing at another's misfortune (unless they ask for it), and that includes the malachim. Personally, I am not qualified to make assessments as to who is a tzadik or a rasha. For all I know, there is absolutely no way to tell from the outside appearances. That qualitative factor lies within the work, and that is something we generally do not see and most often take for granted. When that ruach is missing, all hell may break loose. "The 'devil' is in the details, as they say.

It's all about quality. The malachim in Olam HaElyon might be laughing their wings off, but down here in Olam Hazeh, my 'quality' work is dependent upon the chesed I am compelled to perform by my own nature and reasoning. Sorry guys. You'll have to laugh without me.

Kol Tuv


Hrafnkel said...

So you have pitched your tent with the moral absolutist camp? Interesting. I have yet to make a decision, and I may never get there. Cognitive dissonance isn't so bad once you get used to it...

Though I will still laugh at another's misfortunes. And it's really not out of malice towards the other person. I haven't paid it enough heed to come up with any sort of "why" to explain this seeming contradiction, but all I know is that I usually only share my laughter with people I feel comfortable around.

Shlomo said...

C'mon, HRF. You know me better than that.

I'd have to suddenly be stricken with giant leaps of faith before I ever took such a proposition seriously. All I offer here is a better rationale to maybe explain an old problem and provide a new way of viewing mitzvos.

The analogy to a job well done and the psyche of the better worker/tradesman I believe is dead on. I see it every day and even experience the ebb and flow of such commitment within my own writing.

I don't see absolutisms. All we have is people operating at different levels of caring and expertise. That does make a difference.