“Endearingly unfunny”. That could be my middle name!
BAHFest (Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses Festival) is a mock-scientific convention where real scientists present outlandish theories with outlandish evidence. It’s very funny if you like that sort of thing. One such presentation was on the evolution of dad jokes, which clearly developed in order to get teenagers to move out of the house:
As long as children are dependent on their parents, they enjoy dad jokes, but when they enter puberty and should be adults, something changes in their brains, and now (ideally) they can’t get away fast enough, and get jobs and move out of the basement.
It’s funny, but it makes the point that these plays on words create a connection that even little kids can appreciate.
What does that have to do with the parsha? Well, we just celebrated Rosh Hashana, and bad puns are an important part of that celebration:
I am very מחמיר on this. I have Rav Noach Weinberg’s raisins and celery (“raise in salary”); I twirl peas around my head (“whirled peas”); I drink Coke (a year that is “cola” tov)…it goes on and on.
What does השתא דאמרת סימנא מילתא היא—simanim are a “thing”—mean?
How do we know that simanim are a thing?
But the command is more than writing a Torah, it has to be שימה בפיהם:
And the Talmud explains exactly what שימה בפיהם means:
And more specifically:
סימנים are critical to learning:
My children brought up the example of when they were learning the state capitals. We had bad puns—dad jokes—for each: how do you remember that the capital of Pennsylvania is Harrisburg? Think of Harry Potter with pencils up his nose. You will never forget Harry’s boogers.
So אל תקרי שימה אלא סימנה is a meta-siman: it is a siman, a play on words, that tells us to make simanim:
סימנים serve to focus our minds. Our primitive monkey brains can’t handle abstract truth, but need these “tricks” like puns, metaphors and physical symbols. The Ramban famously says מעשה אבות סימן לבנים:
The Ramban explains why Abraham had to walk through the land, as מעשה אבות סימן לבנים:
I do not think the Ramban is saying that the סימן that the נביא is presenting somehow magically makes the prediction come to pass. The פועל דמיון is not to bind G-d but is for us, to take the lesson of the נביא to heart. מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, literally. It is our סימן that teaches us, so we remember that which ה׳ wants us to hear.
And more than that. All the מצוות we do are סימנים for higher ideas.
Rambam famously says that ה׳ commanded sacrifices because that’s what בני ישראל were used to, living in pagan lands; the “purest” form of עבודת ה׳ doesn’t require any physical manifestation.
Rambam is often understood to mean that eventually we will “outgrow” the need for animal sacrifice. I don’t think that’s right; he clearly expects sacrifices to be restored in the days of Mashiach. But he does say that the ma’aseh hamitzvah (in Rav Soloveitchik’s term) is only for imperfect human beings; if man could be a perfect philosopher robot, he would not need them at all. But no human being is at that level. Even a true philosopher has to bring קרבנות!
We only get beyond the need for סימנים when we are no longer bound to physical bodies:
In a certain sense, ה׳ is אבינו שבשמים, and the universe is the ultimate dad joke.