I can’t say I’m very fluent in Yiddish, though I wish I was. Like many Orthodox Jews, I know “ah bissel.” From my years in yeshivah and hearing drashos, I have gleaned more of the “shprach.” I know enough to quote things to my students in Yiddish to make them think I know Yiddish. But there’s always at least one student who – when I say something in Yiddish – gives me a funny, knowing look that says, “Rabbi, both of us know that that didn’t make any sense grammatically.”
For many of us, Yiddish is the language our parents or grandparents spoke when they didn’t want their children to understand what they were saying. A friend told me that his mother’s most common refrain was her saying to his father, “nisht fahr di kinder – not in front of the kids!”
My Bubby a”h would often quote Yiddish aphorisms. When I would ask her what they meant, she would always say the same thing: “It doesn’t translate well into English.” When she did translate them, to my young mind they indeed sounded nonsensical. It always seemed to be something about how you can’t make food under some strange condition, like you can’t make pancakes when it’s snowing. And it always had some deep explanation that I never understood how it connected to the saying.
There is undoubtedly a tremendous wealth of profound wisdom in those ancient Yiddish sayings. Rabbi Dovid Cohen (of Brooklyn) authored a sefer called Yiddish – A Holy Language, in which he discusses the Biblical and Talmudic sources for many Yiddish sayings.
One of the most famous and oft-quoted “Yiddishisms” is “Der mentch tracht un Gut lacht – Man plans and G-d laughs.” Its clear message is that we have no guarantees or assurances that we will be able to follow through on anything. Even our best-laid and best-intentioned plans are subject to change because of circumstances beyond our control. Rabbi Cohen suggests that one possible source for this aphorism is the pasuk recited each morning: “Many are the thoughts in the heart of man, but the plan of Hashem – it is what endures” (Mishlei 19:21).
The poignant wording “and G-d laughs” is meant to emphasize our vulnerability and limited perspective. However, it can also be easily misunderstood. I recently read an article in which the author noted that so many things he had hoped for, and worked hard to achieve, did not work out. He then added that he had enough of G-d laughing at him.
It was a painful statement and it got me thinking. Granted, it’s not an ancient statement from Chazal. Still, if it has entered the lexicon of the Jewish people – as Rabbi Dovid Cohen explained – it means that it has some depth. Clearly, G-d doesn’t laugh mockingly or derisively. So what does it mean that G-d “laughs” at our plans?
The Chofetz Chaim relates a parable about a guest visiting a city for Shabbos. After davening on Shabbos morning, the guest approached the gabbai and questioned why he had given aliyos to people from all sides of the shul. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to just call up seven people from the same row? The gabbai replied that since he was only a guest, he could hardly understand the reason for each aliyah. The first aliyah went to the kohen who sat in the front, the Levi was in the back, the fellow who got Sh’lishi has yahrzeit, R’vii went to a man who is celebrating his birthday, etc. How could a person come for one Shabbos and expect to understand everything happening in that town?
To give a more contemporary example: If a person enters a movie theater a half hour after the movie started, he won’t understand what is happening in the movie. To the annoyance and consternation of the other viewers, he will likely spend the next few minutes questioning what is happening and why the characters are acting as they are. If he then leaves a half hour before the movie ends and the resolution is achieved, he will be even more confused.
My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that we enter this world long after the story has begun, and we leave this world long before the story reaches its resolution. How can we expect to understand why things occur as they do?
A young boy learns about the September 11 attacks and the subsequent war on terror. His father is a police officer who was injured in the September 11 attacks. He comes homes and asks his father that if the American army is so powerful, why don’t they just kill all the terrorists and the whole problem will be solved? His father laughs.
Is the father laughing at his son? Is he mocking his son? Not at all – he is laughing at his son’s naïveté and his inability to grasp the complexity and difficulty of the matter, to think it can be solved so simply.
Not only does Hashem not laugh at our pain, but the Gemara relates that He feels our pain, and suffers along with us (Sanhedrin 46a).
Perhaps the expression about “G-d laughing” is to highlight our inability to understand how the world works, and why things need to happen as they do. We can hardly see the bigger picture, and so we have to rely on our faith that it’s truly all for the best. Perhaps it is meant to intimate that, in the celestial worlds where things are clear, they laugh at our annoyance when we don’t understand why things happen. But they surely never laugh at our pain, frustration, and anguish. On the contrary!