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The Seriousness of Somersaults

Posted on Monday, March 18, 2019 by Or Mars

Author Anne Lamont writes that “laughter is carbonated holiness.” And our sages agree. The Talmud says that before Rava began teaching, he would tell a joke and the Sages (studying with him) would laugh…” (Babylonian Talmud: Shabbat 30b). Rav Tzadok haCohen of Lublin (Poland 1823-1900) adds to this saying that “because through this (laughter) the heart is widened when one is sad. And one must sit in awe in learning and [if] they cannot find true joy in their heart, they find the joy (widen) with laughter.”

What is true for Torah is true for the Torah of leadership. Leadership excellence cannot emerge if we don’t see benefiting the Jewish People as being of utmost importance. But being serious about your work does not mean that laughter, levity and play cannot pervade all that you do. Humor means that there is room for joy in our work – and there is no excellence without joy. The right dosage of humor also leads to an equanimity that is required in the tumult of our daily professional lives. If we fill our work with humor, there will be very little room left for anger. Even in our holy work as Jewish professionals or volunteers, we are barraged with egos, politics and daily disappointment. A healthy sense of humor can foster a calm perspective to see the blessings of our special work through the fog of the many frustrations.

There was a custom of the early Hasidim engaging in play by doing somersaults before Kabbalat Shabbat and in preparation for studying Torah. Though it was fiercely criticized by the powers that be (Etkis, pp 69-70), there are those who claim that this form of humorous play builds character. Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels of Ohr Halev posits that this seemingly ridiculous rabbinical tumbling, in fact, lent a sense of seriousness to the holy acts that it preceded. He teaches that “sometimes being silly is a way to show up…it is a practice of being vulnerable and not protecting ourselves, reminding ourselves not to become too self-important.” Jacobson-Maisels claims that play is actually practicing taking risks and is an expression of freedom. “We can release our caution and our fear that we might get it wrong.” (See Ohr Halev for wonderful podcasts on “Playfulness”).

In his classic anthropological study of play Homo Ludens (Playful Human, 1938), Johan Huizinga claims that play is core to what it means to be human, so if we want to exercise leadership with other human beings (and I assume most of us do) then we must not be tone deaf to the place of play and humor in their lives and our own. Huizinga writes, “In play we may move below the level of the serious, as the child does; but we can also move above it – in the realm of the beautiful and the sacred.” 

Pilot Wexner Field Fellow Aaron Henne (Class 28) of Theatre Dybbuk makes a clear connection between vulnerability, humor and leadership in the following short “laughter meditation” to help us find the joy in our lives and work:

  • Step 1: Sit down
  • Step 2: Open a hand and put it on your lap
  • Step 3: Picture something in that hand that you are afraid to lose, especially those things which may be most precious. For example, a career, a loved one, your own life...
  • Step 4: Now, close your hand around it, tightly.
  • Step 5: Over the next three minutes open up your hand, finger by finger, until that which you are afraid to lose is once again fully exposed.
  • Step 6: Now, imagine that which is in your hand is floating away and you cannot hold onto it. You have to let it go. (This may be especially hard for those things you hope will last or outlast you - your children, for example. But, you must let go of even those, for you can try to keep them safe from harm or from that which would take them away - and that is worthy and fair behavior - but what will happen is out of your hands.)
  • Step 7: Let it go.
  • Step 8: Now, laugh. Laugh. Laugh.

At first, the laughter will seem forced – because it is, but go with it. Especially if you are doing this in a group setting you will soon find that your forced laughter will become authentic joy. Your laughter will bring about laughter in others and vice versa. And in a group of people who you care about, who are passionate about doing serious leadership work for vital causes, you will, together, experience carbonated holiness. Try it. 

Or Mars is Vice President of The Wexner Foundation. He is an alum of The Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program (Class 6). Or lives in Columbus, OH, and can be reached here