Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 31 October 2020 / 13 Heshvan 5781

Laughing Stock

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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The book of Genesis mainly teaches us about our great forefathers, the lives they led, and the foundations they laid for the future of the Jewish People. We come from good stock. Avraham teaches us loving-kindness, Yitzchak teaches us disciplined courage, and Yaakov teaches us truth. Yitzchak’s birth teaches us something else, no less fundamental to our national destiny — that we come from laughing stock.

Avraham and Sarah both laugh in response to the tidings that that they will bear a son in their old age. Avraham fell upon his face and laughed, saying to himself: Shall a child yet be born to a man who is a hundred years old, or shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, give birth? (Ber. 17:17)

The Hebrew word — tzachak — is closely related to the word for ‘crying out’ — tza’ak, or za’ak. These two different phenomena share a common theme. Both are triggered by the confluence of incompatible opposites. The objective reaction to such confluence is laughter, the subjective reaction is crying out. Noticing incongruity in something dissociated from ourselves makes us laugh; but if the incongruity affects us personally, or affects someone with whom we identify empathetically, our reaction is to cry out. A child wearing a wig, an old man dressed as a baby, a dignified adult who slips, an unexpected comparison, elicits laughter. But if we identify with the person and empathize with his pain or shame, we feel like crying out. The same is true when there is a disparity between expectation and performance. This can be a trigger for laughter or for crying, depending on the circumstances. Even exceeding expectations can elicit joyous laughter.

Here, the laughter is triggered by the absurdity of Avraham and Sarah bearing a child at ages 100 and 90. In the course of their long married life, Avraham had no children by Sarah. Now, close to the end of their lives, and way past the age of fertility, they were to have a son! The mere birth of the child would be totally unexpected, and even if he were to be born, he would be an only child and in all likelihood would be orphaned at a young age. Yet the prospect of fulfilling Avraham and Sarah’s life mission — prevailing ideologically over the entire world… would the hopes of all mankind rest on this late-born, orphaned youth? If we consider only the natural course of things, this expectation seems totally absurd!

Great significance is attached to Avraham’s laughter, and Sarah’s laughter, which is recounted in two other places. Indeed, Yitzchak’s name bears the reminder of this laughter: the beginning of the Jewish People was absurd. That a thriving people with high hopes and expectations would emerge seemed a ludicrous pretension — that is, to the eye that sees only natural cause and effect. But the Jewish People would not be so bound, because G-d intervenes in their affairs.

It was imperative that our ancestors knew this from the beginning. This is why Yitzchak’s birth had to be absurd. The Jewish People were always, and will always be, the people who prove that nature does not rule this world. G-d is in the midst of mankind and He intervenes throughout world history. The laughter that follows the Jew on his way through history testifies to the Divine character of this path. It is a laughter that we have known for a long time, and still resounds today. And, ultimately, as is hinted at by the future tense of the name — Yitzchak (lit. “he will laugh), the last laugh will be ours — then, our mouths will be full of joyous laughter. (Tehillim 126:2)

  • Sources: Commentary, Bereishet 17:17, 21:6

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