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Told in laughter

A mother? At her age? Just when her dream had finally dried up? Hah!
Sarah's reaction, taken from 'The appearance of the angel before Sarah,' by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1726 - 1728. (Wikimedia Commons)
Sarah's reaction, taken from 'The appearance of the angel before Sarah,' by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1726 - 1728. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sarah laughs.

With incredulity. (Me? A mother? Now?)

With bitterness. (Must you taunt me with false hope? Now, when I finally made peace with my unopened womb, my dried-up flesh?)

With hope. (A child! Now! Truly? Will I finally watch that dried-up dream come true?)

With fear. (Don’t give me hope if you just mean to then undo it. When dried-up dreams revive, their death can kill the soul.)

With the relief of resignation. (I give up. I don’t know what happens next. Whatever shall be shall be.)

With surrender.

And then, the question: Why did you laugh, Sarah?

And so of course Sarah denies her laughter. It’s easier to say “I laughed not” than to define an overflowing heart with words.

* * *

Laughter is explosive. Laughter breaks chains. When you laugh, you go beyond the reactions one can trim and curate. You go beyond the realm of self control.

You overflow.

Sarah will come to fear Abraham’s overflowing love one day. Ishmael will make sport, or in Hebrew — “make laughter” — and she will call for his removal so he won’t influence her son. But Abraham, generous, loving Abraham — he won’t condone such measures. His love for Ishmael will rise and flow past judgment. He will wish to keep his son and concubine on hand.

Sarah will come to fear her husband’s self control, as well. And feel, so keenly feel, the threat of near-bereavement; the very threat that she herself will bring upon Hagar.

But this will come later. Both the overflowing love and then the dreaded self-control. First comes the moment when her flesh awakens, when her dried-up dream comes true.

“Yitzchak,” declares Abraham. “He will laugh.” And the baby lies, real and solid, in his arms.

But Sarah — she knows how dangerous it is to feel too much, to laugh too much, to face God’s disapproving question.

Why did you laugh, Sarah? Why did you laugh?

And so, she qualifies her baby’s name. She make it smaller.

“God has made laughter for me; every one that hears will laugh on account of me,” she says. Everyone will laugh. Everyone “yitzchak.”

Everyone. Not him.

Not this precious baby in her husband’s arms.

(Will she think of this embrace when she will hear, years later, of how those very arms held her son down, under the knife? “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitzchak (Isaac),” God will order. And Abraham will do so, and he will do so with precision. His natural emotions won’t be allowed to overflow. )

But maybe, just maybe, Sarah will whisper different words into her baby’s skin each night.

“Laugh, little baby. Laugh, my little Yitzchak. It isn’t easy, this life into which we are about to raise you. Important, but not easy. Laugh a little, baby. Overflow a little. Be happy, my Yitzchak.”

And the “Yitzchak” will be a hope, will be a prayer.

* * *

Yitzchak will not grow to be the kind of man who overflows with feelings. Once, only once, will he be shaken far beyond his quiet ways. “And Yitzchak trembled very exceedingly, and said: ‘Who then is he that hath taken venison, and brought it to me, and I have eaten of all before you came, and have blessed him?'”

But quiet though he may grow up to be, Yitzchak will not be a stranger to the ways of laughter. His wife, whom he will come to love, will see that side of him. He will make sport, be “metzachek,” with her. Like Ishmael before him, he will “make laughter.”

Yitzchak will not laugh, despite his name. But he will love, and love, too, moves us deeply. Love, too, can overflow and make us blind.

Yitzchak will love his son Esau one day. And later, he will be shaken. He will tremble.

* * *

But this will come later. First comes baby Yitzchak and his telling name. And even earlier came laughter.

Why did you laugh, Sarah? Did you laugh with incredulity or bitterness? With hope, or fear, or resignation, perhaps?

We cannot know. Sarah didn’t tell us. “I laughed not,” she said instead.

But all who laugh, laugh with surrender. Surrender to the moment. Surrender to our feelings. Surrender to our overflowing, human heart.

Sarah surrendered. Sarah laughed. Sarah outstripped her self control, bequeathing us the right to overflow at times.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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