We laugh all the time. From standup comedies to a close knit group of friends, from the most hilarious jokes to that little chuckle that comes as a result of uncomfortable nervousness. Laughter releases, laughter sustains, yet laughter kills as well. The laughter of the bully is perhaps the most cunning blade used to slice the heart of confidence from his unsuspecting prey. How is it that this… thing, this reaction, this process of an uncontrolled machine gun release of breath, can be so powerful? What does laughter really mean? And why, why, is it the name of one of the three Founding Fathers of Judaism?
“And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him… Yitzchak” (Genesis 21:3) Literally meaning, laughter, or, perhaps, he will laugh, one of the three pillars of the Jewish nation was named. However, the story does not start there. For years, Abraham yearned and asked G-d for a son, relying on G-d’s promise that one day it will occur. Upon hearing this as a one hundred year old man Abraham…laughs. That he and his wife, old as they were, should birth a son – it was incredible. Unbelievable, in the best of ways. Then and there, G-d responds and tells him that he should call his son Yitzchak. To name his son, after laughter. But the laughter doesn’t end.
Cue Angels. Messengers from G-d visit Abraham in physical form, once again with news of a child, but this time, more imminent. When hearing the news Sarah has much the same response as Abraham, or so it seems. She laughs, G-d hears, and this time, he chastises her – “is anything too wondorous for G-d”?(Genesis 18:14) While both laughing, their laughs were very different. Abraham believed in G-d, yet the news was so great, so striking, it poured out in exultant joy. Sarah heard the selfsame news, so great, so striking – it seemed almost impossible. She laughed too, stemming more from a place of disbelief than heartfelt ecstasy. Yet one year later, as G-d’s word, Yitzchak came into the world. But the laughter didn’t end.
Before Sarah gave birth she gave Abraham her Egyptian midwife to marry, a sort of in lieu existence, a way to “birth” and raise a child, if not biologically her own. The child born was named Yishmael, the half-brother to Yitzchak. “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, who was born to Abraham, Mitzachek.”(Genesis 21:9) The word, mitzachek, is from the same root of laughter. So what was he doing? The commentaries differ, but some say idol worship, others immoral relations, and yet others say he was the first to shoot an apple. From his brother’s head. Regardless of the exact reference, some form of illicit behavior was taking place, one that related to laughter, though of a more sinister nature. Not wanting that for her son, Sarah drives the kid and her mother away, keeping the atmosphere clear and pure for the development of her child.
So what is laughter? R’ Akiva Tatz, a renowned lecturer and author, writes about the depths of the phenomenon and explains something very intuitive. The juxtaposition of opposites. Every joke, every comedian, uses our common sense to get the better of us. We expect a certain set of norms in life, and when those norms are crossed, or, in some cases, put in a different light, we laugh. We release tension.
To have a son at the age of one hundred was unbelievable, so unnatural that when G-d said it would happen out of pure joy Abraham laughed. The most beautiful joke. Sarah did the same, but with a little less faith. In both cases the laughter released the tension of the unexpected, tearing something down. Sometimes that power is for the better, and sometimes, for the worse. Whatever act Yishmael was performing was some form of moral decapitation, be it metaphorically or, in the case of the apple, rather literally. Acts that should not be done, that go against the natural strain and righteousness of instinctive morality, are funny in their own way. We laugh at the unrefined joke because that creates tension too. Some things should not be said. But if it’s as a joke – well naturally that’s okay. “We were only joking”. Famous last words.
In the world of Kabbalah and Chassidut, Yitzchak is known as the embodiment of Geveurah, strength, or might. Sir Lancelot, was a mighty warrior. Og, a mighty giant. Yitzchak, (l’havdil) the mighty…laugher? The knight in shining armor who…has barely any time devoted to his unique story, and most of what we do know about him relates directly to following the footsteps of his father. It seems so backwards, it seems, perhaps, laughable. Why is Yitzchak, how is Yitzchak both the epitome of might and the deepest expression of laughter? An intrepid explorer, and a devoted follower?
Almost dead. Yitchak almost died. Both committed, Abraham to slaughter and Yitzchak to be slaughtered, Abraham’s arm was stretched out, knife in hand, when at the last moment is stopped by an angel. Yitzchak lives, but, as the sages explain, G-d considers it as if he was killed. As if he was burned, the most emotionally packed offering to have ever walked the earth. A father sacrificing his own son,simply because G-d said to. “The ashes of Yitzchak are seen before me”, (Sifra) the sages explain G-d says. But Yitzchak still walked the earth.
Yitzchak is the man who straddles two worlds, explains R’ Tatz. He is this being who, though living amongst men, is considered to be burned, a sacrifice before G-d in heaven. He is forbidden to leave the Holy land, for his Holiness is unique. Special. His head is on high while with his feet he walk the ground of mortals. A greater contrast, there can not be.
The difference between the world of the spirit, and the physical world, between our life in the present and the one of the Messianic era, is perhaps the greatest joke to have ever been told. “Then our mouths will be filled with laughter, our lips with joyous praise” says the psalmist (Psalms 126:2) In the future times, where G-d’s kingdom will be clearly expressed, and our lives filled with a spiritual luster, we will laugh. Laugh from the incredulity of our small lives, in contrast with the larger picture that we just didn’t get. Laugh from the vision that comes from hindsight, from the ability to stand at the top of the mountain, head in the sky and realize how stuck in our own materialism we were, in our own ways and in our own lives. And to realize that there is so much more, that all that time the struggle was leading to a greater picture, to a more balanced, perfected world, to a world where the small is shown to be great, and the insignificant act so much more meaningful than ever imagined. “A backwards world” in the words of the sage, R’ Yehoshua Ben Levi (Pesachim 50a). Yitzchak, with his own special, spiritual quality, lived in the space between those two worlds. And he laughed.
Gevurah is strength. Gevurah is might. Gevurah is structure, something that creates and increases both of the previous. Externally, we associate words such as these with acts of grandeur, top newspaper headlines, and creating businesses and outreach programs. The hero. But the Rabbis define it slightly differently. “Who is mighty? The one who conquers his inclination.” (Fathers 4:1). We all want to expand our significance in this world. But sometimes, sometimes the greatest strength is found in the conformist. In the one who accepts the system, is ok with their reality, and provides a backbone for the structure from behind. Abraham was a world advocate, a tornado of extraversion spreading religion wherever he went. Yitzchak, his son, was an introvert. He wasn’t a firebrand, and instead of forging his own major enterprise, he accepted the one handed to him. He dug the wells his father dug, lived in the places his father lived. He followed, he supported. He wasn’t the mascot. He was the flesh and blood. The humble force that has the strength to continue what was started, the discipline to work the project that his visionary father had the spark to create.
Where did Yitzchak’s strength come from? How does a person not drown in the day to day humdrum of life, in the routines and systems we most often find ourselves in, that we know are valuable but are just so hard to trudge through? How does a student make their way through school, a soldier push their way through draining situations, a worker show up day after day and somehow, somehow find a source of strength, and have the energy to continue till the end? Where do we find the joy, how can we laugh?
Yet perhaps the answer lies in the name of the game itself. Laughter. Juxtaposition of opposite realities. Yitzchak’s power, his essence, was to be connected with a larger world. He left his tunnel vision of day to day life, for a larger scale, set of cosmic glasses. And in that he found joy. He found love. The first person in the Torah to have been recorded as loving his wife, and even cracking her up. (Genesis 26:8) Yitzchak enjoyed his life, had the strength and breadth of shoulders to happily accept the structure someone else had created and take responsibility for its continuation, because he looked down from above and saw, clearly, the beauty of the whole. The world was bigger than himself, his own life, and when a person puts their small selves in perspective all their problems seem suddenly so much less significant. Even humorous. Yitzchak had no problem being a follower because in the long run, it wasn’t about him. It was about creating a larger world that recognized G-d, that he had his part to play.
It’s so easy to get bogged down in the details. So easy to become hyper focused on the little grievances we have with ourselves and others. But ultimately, the sun rises and sets every day, and there is so much more than just us. G-d has a larger plan, the world, nature, is so much more than the specks of our individual lives, and perhaps by realizing that we too can rise above. We too, can joyfully accept our roles,our positions, our structures, and we too can have the strength to push through till the end. And we too, can laugh about it. Robbin Williams? He’s got nothing on the biggest joke of all. Individual Life.