I know two things for sure about God: God is good, and God has a sense of humor.
Once, when my husband Ben and I were first dating, he came over to meet my then four-year-old daughter and overheard her say “goodnight, Benny!” as she waved out the window before bed, a part of her nighttime routine that had become so habitual I had stopped noticing it.
“Is she talking to me?” he asked, confused.
I explained that when we’d moved in, we had named the water tower we could see out the window “Benny.”
“That water tower is exactly in the direction of my apartment,” Ben said. “Do you mean to tell me that every night for the past two years you guys have been looking out the window towards where I live and saying ‘goodnight, Benny’?”
Two years later, now married, Ben and I were strolling through our neighborhood, having a heated conversation about the archetype of Zeus as it plays out in our culture.
Ben said, “Look down.”
My foot was stepping on the word Zeus, carved into the pavement.
In my experience, God isn’t ROFL funny. Their jokes are more playful than cutting, more illuminating than titillating. Carl Jung called God’s jokes synchronicities. I call them winks: God saying, “I see you, kid.” Or to get a little new agey and metaphysical: the God-material of which we are made resonating in light and surprising ways with the God-material in the world around us.
As a child, I often mixed my father up with God. My dad was a stern ultra-Orthodox rabbi who told morbid, dry jokes. Back then, God’s jokes also seemed morbid. Here’s one: I was my dad’s favorite kid. I was so devout. As a teenager, I wanted to be part of the men’s Torah conversations. But I was a girl. It was immodest for me to join in, or to want to. I pushed back against my family’s pushback, and in a series of escalating conflicts, I ended up pushed out of my family at the age of seventeen. Me, the kid who listened most earnestly to my father’s words of Torah—me, the kid who tried to win a competition by memorizing every one of the 613 mitzvos before learning that the girl’s division of the competition had been canceled—me, the kid who had tried to persuade my less ultra-Orthodox classmates to adopt my ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. I was out on the streets. And in all of the heartbreak that followed, all that I continued to crave was closeness to God and my father’s love.
It’s a little morbid, right? But kind of funny.
The Psalms portray God as funny, if mercurial. In Psalm 2, Verse 4, He laughs at scheming gentiles one moment before roaring in anger the next. In Psalm 37, Verse 13, He laughs at the wicked and imagines their downfall. The whole thing feels a little Dr. Evil-esque. It’s not my kind of humor.
I’m notoriously unfunny myself. Once, while interviewing for a fellowship, I had to deliver a short sermon. My sermon was about trauma, which is kind of my thing. I’ve written about the trauma of growing up in a fundamentalist, deeply misogynistic ultra-Orthodox community, the trauma of the violent sexual encounters that I survived after I was thrown out, and the trauma of wrestling with my gender before coming out as non-binary. Since then, talking about trauma has become my job. So I delivered my little trauma sermon, and the interviewers seemed fairly engaged. But then the one conservative rabbi on the panel asked, sounding very concerned for me and perhaps a little put off: “But do you ever laugh?”
I do. Maybe not enough, but I do. In fact, after all the trauma that I endured, one of the big things that changed everything for me—that transformed me, and opened the door to healing—was a joke.
It was Ben’s joke. Ben’s a funny guy. I fell in love with him because it seemed to me that he had the clearest bead on truth of any human being I’d ever encountered—as well as the strange and, to me, intensely sexy look of a man in a Renaissance painting. But his ability to make me laugh didn’t hurt.
The big joke that turned me around wasn’t about anything funny. It was about my panic at falling in love with him. When I met Ben, I’d already been married, had a kid, gotten divorced, and had my heart broken more than enough times. Romance looked like a death trap. I swore to myself that I was done with love, done with long-term relationships. But mahn tracht uhn Gott lacht, as my people say. Man plans and God laughs.
The worst thing about my relationship with Ben was how good it was. Our emotional intimacy was so breathtakingly intense, the intellectual fireworks so fierce, the sex so exquisite. How could it possibly last? Every week or so I’d freak out about the day the love would inevitably drain out and I’d be trapped in a desiccated husk of a relationship.
To be frank, the thing that scared me most of all was sex. Sex was my portal to spiritual experience, the space where I grappled with trauma, the very heartbeat of my life. Long-term relationships were not famously conducive to great sex. So any night that Ben didn’t reach for me in bed, I’d freak out. All of the frequent, earth-rattling sex we were otherwise having would vanish from my mind. I’d fly out of bed and pace the living room in the dark, blood roaring in my ears, breath strangled in my lungs, hissing wild accusations at Ben as he followed worriedly behind me. We started calling these freak-outs my “nightmares.” Eventually, Ben just learned to sit with me until the nightmare passed.
Within three months of our first meeting, Ben had basically moved into my apartment. Over Christmas, I flew out to meet his family in Colorado. My freak-outs only intensified with the accelerating pace of our relationship.
And then, one morning in January, the joke.
It started very early, with Ben reaching for me in bed. I brushed him off. I was just too tired, too snared in the last delicious tendrils of sleep. After breakfast, as we were both tying up our boots to venture out for the day, I noticed a little smirk on Ben’s mouth.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
Ben stood up and stepped close to me. With his voice high and desperate but his eyes big and twinkling with laughter, he said, “Why didn’t we have sex this morning? Don’t you love me anymore?”
I froze. Those were the exact words that I normally spat at him during my freak-outs. I wasn’t mad that Ben was playfully mocking me. No. I froze because it felt as if my brain had been twisted open like a jar of peanut butter. I could almost hear a lid pop as everything shifted. Watching Ben mimic me, for the first time, I could see my freak-outs from the outside, instead of from the inside. I could see them as Ben saw them. I could see, not with cruelty but with gentle compassion, how silly they were. I could see that Ben did love me, that the thing Ben and I had was real, that my accusations were projections, that I’d been superimposing old wounds onto new circumstances.
By that point in my life, I was a therapy veteran. I’d done time on a psych ward. I’d been through CBT and regular vanilla therapy and many varieties of spiritual healing. My undergraduate degree was in psychology. I’d even run a mental health program. I knew that insight and healing were slow going. They took a lot of hard work. But Ben’s joke changed me in an instant. I could feel how deep it went in the moment and that feeling was borne out. After that morning, my freak-outs stopped.
I needed to know how, why. I became obsessed with understanding what mechanism had allowed Ben’s jokey playfulness to give me such a dramatic new perspective on my neurosis. Ben was similarly intrigued. We ended up constructing an entire therapeutic system based on what we discovered. We developed a collection of principles and practices that we started applying to our other wounds, with strange and wondrous results. It became a central part of our relationship: talking about our traumas, applying our new magic tools, and—zap!—watching things transform. The work involved recognizing our internal multiplicity, activating the past, playing with our gender, witnessing our younger selves with love. Without realizing it, we were inventing a mash-up of Internal Family Systems Therapy, Family Constellation Therapy, and Somatic Experiencing, all mixed with a heaping portion of Kabbalah.
One night, I invited some of my friends over for dinner with me and Ben. For dessert, I made the cold, fudgey peanut butter, chocolate, and oatmeal no-bake cookies that my sisters and I used to make for my father. My father loved those cookies so much that he used to beg us not to make them; they were too tempting. We made them anyway. What better act of service than to offer someone a thing he could not allow himself? To gift both the treat and the permission to eat it?
As an adult, whenever I got really distraught, I’d allow myself to stir up a pot of these no-bake cookies. They were so comforting. Maybe, in making and eating them, I was subconsciously playing child-me and my father at the same time. I’d put the cookies in my mouth, one after another, high on the relief they released in me, until I’d eaten so many it felt like I’d throw up from the sugar. Sometimes it seemed to me that my entire adult life was a prolonged and losing struggle to not continuously make and eat those cookies—or a prolonged and losing struggle to stop craving my father’s love.
Dinner with Ben and my friends was fabulous, full of laughter and spirited conversation. When it all came to an end, I watched everyone share my father’s favorite cookies that I’d eaten so many times alone and bereft. It felt like watching the closing credits of a rom-com. God, I was happy.
A few weeks later, late one night, Ben and I were sitting on the sofa talking about my painful, unbreakable reverence for my father, a reverence that got all mixed up in my feelings about God. I was beginning to explain the link between my father and the no-bake cookies when Ben gave me a humorous grimace.
“I have a confession,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked, dread starting up in my throat.
“Those no-bake cookies you made at that dinner party . . .” he said.
“They’re completely disgusting.”
Horrified, I laughed. The laughter came out of me like fireworks, explosive and violent, ripping quickly up through me from somewhere in my distant past. It was a terrifying laugh, full-body, shamanic. Like a possession.
Confused, alarmed, I jumped off the sofa and escaped to the bedroom, laughter still exploding out of me.
On some level, Ben and I both knew what was going on. The healing work we did tended to provoke strange bodily reactions: sobbing fits, catatonic fugues, full-body shakes. Intense physical expression seemed to mark transformative moments when great healing became available.
So Ben, who had followed me into the bedroom, kept pushing.
“Lumps of butter stuck with raw oats,” he said, laughing now and pronouncing each word with incredulous precision. “The very pinnacle of desire.”
It was as if his own laughter gave me permission to laugh myself—to laugh at greasy, oversweet cookies that had come to represent my father and comfort and love. To laugh at my veneration of my father.
I laughed with Ben. Then my laughter turned into sobs. Then, tears pouring down my cheeks, I started laughing again. My brain was spinning like a washer.
“We—” I began, then choked up with giggles. “When we were kids—because of how they looked—used to call—them—diarrhea cookies.”
This time Ben and I snorted with laughter together. For fifteen years I had craved these cookies. I had reached for diarrhea cookies instead of the nurturance and spiritual connection that I truly needed.
That was God-laughter right there. That was laughter that had been bottled up for all those years, squished down tight by my awe of my father. Holy laughter. The laughter that punctures a false god so that a larger, truer Divine can be seen.
I loved my father. I love my father. I loved the God of my youth. But my father was just a man and the God of my youth just a trauma-warped mask for Divinity. Better to hold them lightly. Better to be able to laugh, playfully, with love.
I’m in rabbinical school now, studying the texts I wasn’t allowed to study as a child. I’m learning Kohelet, which says that “a feast is made for laughter.” Maybe that simply means we gather for meals, not to feed our stomachs, but to connect through laughter. Or, to get a little Talmudic about it, maybe it means that we should examine the feasts we’ve made in our life. What have we cooked up in our inner worlds, what do we present to ourselves and others for nourishment? Can we laugh at it? Is there some spell on our life’s feasts that needs to be shattered with laughter?
I’ll tell you a joke: an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, his non-binary child, and God walk into a bar.
You tell me the punch line.
Jericho Vincent is a writer and educator. They are the author of the memoir Cut Me Loose and co-author of the illustrated children’s book Legends of the Talmud. Their essays have been published in the New York Times, The Cut, the Daily Beast, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Jericho has been named one of the Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36,” and one of The Forward’s “Forward 50” for their writing and community organizing. They hold a master’s degree in Public Policy from Harvard University, where they were a Pforzheimer Fellow. Trained as an IFS coach, they are currently a Wexner Fellow and rabbinical student. You can find them @thealef on Instagram and at jerichovincent.com.