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The God Squad: God’s sense of humor

Rabbi Marc Gellman, Tribune Content Agency on

Q: Your recent columns about 'Godwinks' has reminded me of the time in 1953 while I was an eighth-grader at a Catholic school in Detroit when our Dominican sister wrote on the blackboard in an English class the following quotable quote by Robert Frost:

Forgive O Lord, my little jokes on Thee

And I'll forgive Thy great big joke on me.

I can't recall what discussion my classmates and I may have had at the time, or whether we were assigned an exercise about the verse, but I do remember being impressed by its possible meanings, especially its reference to "Thy great big joke on me," and inference that God may have a sense of humor, which for some reason came as a great relief to me, perhaps because of all my little jokes on God and, since then, because I've never been able to find a reference to Jesus laughing in the New Testament. One of my favorite lines from all of scripture is, "And Sarah laughed."

My two-part question, then, is whether you think Frost may have used a psalm or other scriptural reference as the basis for crafting his quotable quote, and how might you interpret the meaning of his "big joke on Thee," which I've always assumed refers to our lack of humility in ascribing to ourselves powers of self-importance we surely don't merit and were never intended as part of our creation? But, of course, I may be misreading Frost's intent. -- (From A in Raleigh, NC)

A: Bravo, dear A. I think you got it right. The “big joke on me” I agree is our arrogance. The rabbis of the first century answered the question of why God chose to make human beings at the end of creation with the hilarious riposte that it was to keep us from arrogance by reminding us that even the cockroaches were made before us.

The same rabbis also taught that the reason only one person was created at the beginning was also an anti-arrogance move. Having one ancestor for all humanity would prevent people in the times to come from bragging, “My ancestor was greater than yours.”

 

In the admittedly difficult task of finding hilarious parts of sacred scripture, I would also include the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 11. In the fourth and fifth verses we read of the arrogance of the people that led to them building a tower up to heaven “to make a name for ourselves.” Then after they accomplish their task we read the simple and hilarious verse, “And God came down to see the city and the tower that they had built.” (11:5).The joke is that the tower was so high and yet God still had to come down to see it. LOL. Then you can add in Balaam’s talking donkey (Numbers 22) and Sarah’s laughter and that pretty much exhausts the funny parts of the Bible.

To your point. The decision to make people in God’s image inevitably leads to arrogance, and yet we remain skinny, mainly hairless, featherless, clawless wimpy creatures compared to the athletes of the animal world. Our divine creation and our animal nature are the two poles of human existence and balancing them remains our greatest spiritual and moral challenge. Humor helps restore humility and balance in the chaos of existence.

Q: The prayer "now I lay me down to sleep ... if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take" is "usually" passed down from father to son and or mother to daughter. -- E

A: Is this true? I never heard of that. I am curious about what bedtime prayers you, dear readers, learned from your parents. My dad, Sol, told me to pray for the Milwaukee Braves during baseball season. When they took my team and moved them to Atlanta, dad told me to stop praying for them. Other than that, the most spiritual thing my dad taught me was to brush my teeth before bed.

(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at godsquadquestion@aol.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman. Also, the new God Squad podcast is now available.)

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