Death appears frequently in this week’s Torah portion, Va’yishlach (Genesis 32:4–36:43). It’s only fitting. I’ve been thinking about death lately. Also humor. They go hand in hand. As it says on the back cover of my upcoming novel The Boy Walker (available around the first of the year; I’ll keep you posted): death is nothing—and everything—to laugh about.
First Torah: Jacob escapes possible death at the hands of his elder twin Esau when they meet after twenty years. Jacob had been sent off by his mother Rebecca after he stole Esau’s birthright and blessing. Then things go downhill. Shechem, a Hivite prince, rapes Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Pursuing revenge, Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi trick then slaughter the men of the town. The rest of Jacob’s sons go on a plunder spree. Jacob protests the murderous rampage. Simeon and Levi respond, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”
There’s more. D’vorah, Rebecca’s nursemaid, dies. Then Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, dies birthing Benjamin on the road to Ephrat. (Her traditional tomb lies in Bethlehem.) Finally, Isaac dies, “gathered to his kin in ripe old age.” Yet there is uplift. Esau and Jacob together bury their father.
As to me, I’ve been noting the dwindling of my family. My Aunt Rita—my mother’s sister—is the last of my blood aunts and uncles. Several cousins have died, too. Still, life goes on. I have a wife and children. My sister Kay turned seventy-five two days ago. She has two grandsons. And I keep writing.
I’ve been working on short stories. Several reflect on death—physical and emotional. A retired astronaut contemplates the meaninglessness of life on his eightieth birthday. An actuary must live with a heart transplanted from a police officer with a terrible secret. An Israeli gangster becomes religious then disillusioned via the workings of the Satan. A painter learns that art in the highest circles is all about business.
Then there’s The Boy Walker. The beginning of the novel relates, “The Malach HaMavet—the Angel of Death—seizes victims arbitrarily and inflicts on their survivors wounds both horrific and seemingly irreparable.” Don’t be depressed. Preceding chapter one is a stand-up comedy bit from the novel’s narrator, Brute Greenbaum. “Dogs are way smarter than people,” he states. Then he makes his case. Brute knows. He’s a 12-year-old English Bulldog equivalent to a human centenarian. His tongue is worse than his bite.
Death haunts not only Brute but also his father-and-son co-masters. But comedy intervenes. Lots of it. I can think of no better approach to mortality. Laughter produces endorphins, which boost our bodies and spirits. And audiences aren’t the only ones who benefit. Brute notes about angst-ridden comics: “For a stand-up, a gig is therapy. Only the patient gets paid.”
My English professor and advisor at Alfred University, Mel Bernstein (z”l), once told me, “Never lose your sense of humor.” Who knows? Laughter just might inspire the Malach HaMavet to raise a glass of California Chardonnay or a Manhattan and toast, “L’chaim! To life!”
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Read the first three chapters of SAN CAFÉ and of SLICK!, named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the 25 Best Indie Novels of 2012, at davidperlstein.com. Order at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com or bn.com.