by Rabbi Michoel Gourarie
The Talmud relates that the great sage Rabbah had the following practice. When he lectured in Talmudic law he would always begin with a joke, causing the students to laugh, after which he would continue with a serious presentation of in-depth analysis of Jewish Law.
Sometimes public speakers use this technique in order to gain everyone's attention and focus. However for Rabbah that was not necessary, as his students were dedicated scholars ready to receive his teachings with full concentration. Why would Rabbah need his disciples to laugh at the beginning of each lecture?
Our sages tell us that "Simcha (joy and happiness) breaks through walls". We all possess symbolic fences and barriers surrounding our minds and hearts, creating our inhibitions and making us scared to grow and change beyond our comfort zone. When we are sad and our mood is down, these walls are strengthened. Our positive energy and vitality is drained from our system, causing us to slip into apathy and complacency.
But joy can tear these fences down. When we are upbeat, positive and in a happy mood we become more flexible and confident, willing to test fresh ideas, challenge old habits, engage in new and improved behaviors and grow beyond our comfort level. In times of intense joy and celebration our inhibitions disappear and our minds and hearts are unblocked, ready to soar to new heights.
For Rabbah, dedicated students were not enough. He wanted them to be creative and grow in their learning by thinking beyond their natural ability. He wanted them to ask challenging questions and think of alternative ways to approach the material. Laughing at the beginning of class opened their minds to think more broadly.
Personal growth, change and human development can only happen in the context of optimism, joy and an upbeat mood. Keep laughing - it breaks through walls.