Kenneth Brander
Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

From Derision to Redemption: The Journey of Laughter (Parshat Vayera)

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Laughter: it can represent many things. It can be a response of pure joy, or amazement. It can be derisive and cynical, a response to a certain comment or an act. Laughter can be a response of surprise, of fear, of being scared, or something that is just unbelievable. Laughter can be a sign of optimism and of joy.

In this week’s parsha, we see laughter, “tzhok” being used in so many different ways – unprecedented in Tanach.

First, at the end of Lech Lecha, when Avraham is told that he will have a son through Sarah, he says the following: ויפול אברהם על פניו he falls on his face, ויצחק. (Genesis 17:17)

He bows down to God to acknowledge this amazing news. It creates a context for his laughter. It’s a response of joy and amazement.

In our parsha, when Sarah is informed by the angels, dressed as visiting strangers, that she will have a child, we’re told that “ותצחק שרה בקרבה” she has an inner laugh and she says, “How can I have a child? I’m old. My husband is old.” (Genesis 18:12)

There are no context clues. And therefore, some of the commentators define this laugh as incredulous, as cynical.

And therefore, Sarah is challenged about this response and she tries to explain: “No!” She laughed for a different reason. It was a laugh of joyful amazement.

When Lot tells his sons-in-law to escape with him from Sodom, because Sodom is going to be destroyed. “Leave this place because God will destroy it.”

They laugh at their father-in-law. This laughter is definitely one of derision, of cynicism, showing disdain of Lot and his comments. (Genesis 19:14)

And when Avraham and Sarah’s son, Yitzhak, is born, Sarah says “ותאמר שרה, צחוק עשה לי אלוקים”; God has made laughter for me “כל השומע”, all who will hear “יצחק לי” will laugh. (Genesis 21:6)

It’s unclear if Sarah is stating people are joyful, are amazed and all hear about my birth are happy for me, or she means people are mocking me.

They’re stating that I was most probably impregnated in Egypt, for how is it possible that Avraham, who is not given any more children to Hagar, now helps me have a child?

And that’s why the Torah goes out of its way to mention Avraham so many times when the birth of Yitzhak is announced in the Torah.

Then there is the situation with Yishmael, when we’re told in the Torah “ותרא שרה”, and Sarah sees that Yishmael “אשר ילדה לאברהם מצחק”, who was born to Avraham, is laughing with Yitzhak. (Genesis 21:9)

Sarah sees that Yishmael is here fooling with Yitzhak, laughing at him, making sport of Yitzhak, causing Yitzhak problems.

With all of these meanings for the word “yitzhak”, why is it that Avraham and Sarah call their child by this name?

What message does Avraham and Sarah want to communicate to us, their children, about the name Yitzhak?

I believe that they’re trying to share with us something about the enterprise of what it means to be part of the Jewish people.

After all, Sarah and Avraham introduced monotheism into the world, and now we’re transitioning from a couple, to a family, to a people, to a movement.

The Jewish people are here to share this ideal with society – our chosenness is our responsibility, and this child, Yitzhak, represents the first generation of the saga of introducing this ideal to society – a nation of monotheism, is now born.

He is called Yitzhak, laughter, to communicate to us the fact that sometimes Judaism will be Yitzhak, it will be met with cynicism.

It will be met with derision, incredulity, especially when we don’t live up to our responsibility. And sometimes “yitzhak”, the laughter, will be a dark laughter, a laughter of darkness.

And by calling him Yitzhak, Avraham and Sarah are also telling us: you know, this enterprise of Judaism really might work. It might really happen. It can happen.

This can be a laughter of surprising optimism. This can be an ideal that can become a reality.

“אז ימלא שחוק פינו”, people will have laughter, “ולשוננו רינה”, as the Jewish people return to their land with a mandate to matter, as the Jewish people move from the periphery of history to the center of history. (Psalms 126:2)

My father in law, Yitzhak, of blessed memory, was a single man in the DP camps, who had survived the Holocaust. He traded with someone to purchase the (Shabbat) candelabra, because he knew eventually he would get married and wanted his wife and his family to have the light of Shabbat. This was important to him.

Yitzhak Tambor, when he bartered for the candelabra, was met with “צחוק”, was met with laughter of cynicism, of derision.

“Seriously? Yitzhak, survivor of the Holocaust, single, this is what you need?”

But that candelabra was used by my mother-in-law, of blessed memory, created light in their home, and it now creates light in our home, in Jerusalem, 40 minutes from the Kotel.

The “צחוק” of derision became a laughter of hope and optimism, and that’s what defines the Jewish people.

When we are able to transform the laughter into a world of hope, of optimism and joy. That’s our responsibility.

That’s what it means to be a “yitzhak”, to be able to create laughter of redemption, the responsibility of what it means to be the children of Avraham and Sarah.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 30 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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