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A Story about Laughter and the Spiritual Practice of Sacred Study: Marc Gafni

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Courting the Sacred

When I sit down to prepare a teaching the process goes something like this. First is the attraction. I generally only teach that to which I am attracted. There has to be an almost unquenchable longing to explore the subject. Second it be fully present in the impassioned pursuit, in the investment of energy and attention, in learning its contours and plumbing its secrets. Finally on the good days, there is the ecstatic merging with the wisdom, when all the disparate piece fall together in an elegantly interconnected whole. I once had such a romance when preparing a series of talks on the topic of laughter.

I had decided to give a lecture series on laughter, a topic that had always fascinated me. To prepare, I gathered my ancient texts into a friend’s apartment in the old city of Jerusalem. I barely emerged from the apartment for three days. I read source after source but somehow it did not make any sense to me. Ancient sources are very much unlike the modern essay. The modern essay is too often ‘a lot that holds a little.’ The ancient Hebrew wisdom sources are koan-like in their quality and are usually ‘a little that holds a lot.’

Moreover you can only understand them if they decide to let you inside. So I danced with them and flirted. They teased me, lead me on, but then demurred, and withdrew. Somehow it wasn’t clicking.

Finally, after three days, I arrived at two in the morning very tired and about ready to give up. ‘No, not just yet – one more time,’ I said to myself, ‘and if not, I am through with this topic.’ And as I slowly, gently read the text for the last time, it was as though light, a soft white light, illuminated the room. The words seemed to read themselves and a single elegant sentence offered herself to me. And then thunder and lightning and wild erotic ecstasy as the text dropped veil after veil until she stood naked before me in all of her sensual splendor. I was on the inside of laughter. All the sources organized themselves in an instant and unfolded beautifully as two distinct forms of laughter distinguished themselves in my soul and mind. Side issues which had troubled me gently untied their knots. And then, not more than six or seven minutes later, it was over. I was spent but happy.

But the story is not quite over yet. Exhausted I gathered my books and after sitting for awhile walked to the old walls of the city to find a cab back to my own apartment. I got into the cab and the driver, Ari, wanted to talk. Truthfully, a quiet ride would have worked just fine for me, but such was not what the universe had in mind.

“So what are all those books about?” Ari asked. I knew I could not share with him the whole story so I said nonchalantly said , “Just books I was studying.”
Undeterred, he pressed on. “Well what were you studying?”
Having little choice I answered, “I was trying to unpack the ontological and existential essence of laughter.”

Now usually that is a conversation stopper. But Ari was undeterred; he went right on. “Laughter – the essence of laughter – that’s easy. My grandmother told me about that.”
At this point, I was both bemused and interested: bemused because I just spent three days in intense erotic encounter with this idea and to think he can just throw out a few word about such a profound topic, well…. And yet interested, because I know that grandmothers are often wise and almost always worth the effort of listening. And to my chagrin, even as I half expected it, he did it. He articulated in different words, in his grandmother’s name, that great sentence of illumination that I had experienced but an hour before. Tears gently rolled down my cheek. It was much more than the affirmation of an idea. I knew that God was in me. I felt completely loved and embraced by the universe.

Everything I have described to you has nothing to do, and yet everything to do, with sex. I promise you that during this entire story, the sexual was absolutely the farthest thing from mind. And yet the process of study was no less than loving courtship leading to intimacy. Sex models the erotic; it does not begin to exhaust the erotic. At least for a few seconds on that night, I was on the inside of God’s face in the Holy of Holies between the cherubs.

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