There are so many topics offered in this week’s Torah portion, “Veyera”, and all in a painful way touch on our current reality. We could, for example, learn again the Akeida, the “Binding” – the father and son in their joint, tragic, impossible journey, together. Or, perhaps, delve into the attempt to save Sodom and Gomorrah, asking the question, echoing today, is it possible for a place to not have even ten righteous people? Was there really no one worth saving? Or, perhaps, we could look at Abraham, who rises early in the morning, to discover, to his shock and horror, a world in which the attribute of chesed, kindness, his leading attribute, is missing. “Say your kindness in the morning,” says the Psalmist, but how can one find Gd in a place where grace is present only through its immense absence which leaves a huge hole in one’s heart and soul? Or, perhaps, we should, especially this week, explore the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael, the brothers who receive such different gifts from their one father?
But I’d like to turn to Sarah; Sarah of the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, who brings to our newly forming family and nation, one of the most important gifts we got – laughter. Notice the many Jewish comedians around the world? And even now, in this horrible war, the entertainers out and about “cheering people up”?
Everything begins in our Torah portion: “And Sarah laughed within her, saying…” (Genesis 18:12). Why did Sarah laugh? Sarah thought it was funny that she would have a son, not because she’s 90, but because, after all, as she says, Avraham is so old!
Gd hastens to correct her, and teach us something about shlom-bayit, keeping peace in the home. When He reports the story back to Abraham, He changes it slighting, telling him she said, it’s because she’s old…. The Holy One and Sarah have a funny relationship: later on, Sarah says, she didn’t laugh, but felt awe, and Gd says, ‘no, you did laugh’! (ibid, 15).
What’s this strange exchange? It kind of sounds like school – ‘Teacher, I didn’t do it!’, ‘No, I saw you and you did…!’?
But we’re not in school, except for the school of life. And here, Gd teaches Sarah – and us – what is this thing she’s experiencing. She thinks that this feeling within her, is part of being in “awe”, and Gd reveals something new to her: “No, for you laughed”: This tickle inside you is something else. It’s not awe, but a kind of a wonderful surprise; a hope; a hint that things can be totally different from what we thought – and for better. Some say that the Hebrew word for laughter, tz’chok, comes from a combination of “tze-chok”, get out, depart from the conventions of how things “work” and “should” work.
Which is why Abraham and Sarah name their son Yitzchak, “he will laugh”, in the future.
Wait… how can they think of laughter? They, who experienced a terrible holocaust in Ur of the Chaldeans; wandered without most of their family till they arrived in the Land, then faced hunger, famine, threats, war, loneliness? How is it possible to think that one day we will laugh again? How can we believe? It’s incomprehensible. The pain is too much. If that’s how life is, then never will we…. and that’s all completely true.
But the kid’s name is not tzchok, “laughter”, as a stationary noun; it is also not tzochek, “laughing”, in the present for that would be sick and awful. Rather, he’s named after something that is not yet; something that we can’t see; that we can’t believe is possible; something that Gd tells us, is good and yet to come.
Our tradition has some serious criers – Joseph, David, Leah. But their tears would have no meaning without Abraham’s and Sarah’s laughter.
May we too, though it’s impossible to see it now, merit to be surprised at the future with its goodness and blessings.