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Keep Laughing - תולדות

Friday, 9 November, 2018 - 12:03 pm

I.jpgKeep Laughing

It’s a strange name to give a child.

The child of Abraham and Sarah, the first child to be born to a Jewish family, was named Yitzchok, or Isaac, which means laughter.

Why would Abraham and Sarah chose the name laughter for their child who was destined to be a deeply spiritual person and a patriarch of the Jewish people?

The name Isaac is even more ironic when we consider that the nature and character of Isaac seems to be the precise opposite of laughter and joy. While Abraham was an outgoing extrovert, Isaac kept to himself; while Abraham is characterized in the Torah as the lover of G-d, Isaac is characterized as being in awe of G-d. While Abraham represents the attribute of kindness and giving, Isaac embodies the attributes of strength and discipline. The name Isaac - Joy and laughter - seems out of character with his identity and spiritual path.     

An important ingredient in humor is that in order to be funny the situation has to be unpredictable and unexpected.  The same is true about the broader meaning of the word laughter: a person experiencing a measure of goodness will feel happiness in his heart, yet in order for the happiness to overflow from his heart and express itself in laughter he must experience more than the expected measure of joy. Happiness becomes laughter when the joyous event surpasses all expectations.

The Torah tells us that when Sarah gave birth to her son she said:

And Sarah said, "God has made joy for me; whoever hears will rejoice over me." And she said, "Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children, for I have borne a son to his old age!" [Genesis 21:6-7]

Sarah’s giving birth to a child in her old age was more than just a happy event, it was an event that defied all expectations. Every time Sarah held her son in her arms she was overwhelmed with joy. The overwhelming joy caused her to name her son Isaac/laughter.

As Sarah held her son in her arms she knew that just as his birth was an event that defied expectations, so too the people he would  father would be a people whose destiny would not be defined by predictions and expectations. Their very survival would be a miracle. Sarah understood that while Isaac might not be the most charismatic of the patriarchs, he  would possess the ability to create an unpredictable transformation. He would have the unique ability to defy expectations by finding goodness in the most unlikely of places.

Indeed, this was a central theme of Isaac's life. While the Torah tells us precious little about the life of Isaac, the Torah does elaborate on Isaac's success as a well digger. The Kabbalists explain that Isaac's wells represent a departure from his father Abraham's approach. Abraham influenced people by “bringing the water to them”. Abraham was a superb teacher and a charismatic communicator. He showered his listeners with love and, by the force of his character, compelled them to be influenced by his message of G-d and morality. Isaac, by contrast, did not bring the water to the people. Instead he helped people find the well within themselves. He helped them realize that they have a wellspring of G-dliness and holiness within themselves. Abraham would teach through sharing the enlightening, Abraham was like a teacher eager to share the answer with the student. Isaac, by contrast, displayed discipline. He would withhold the answer and allow the student to search for the answer on his own. Isaac empowered the student to believe in his own ability to dig within himself, to remove the psychological barriers, and discover the truth on his own.

Which is why Isaac loved Esau.

Esau was the child who seemed completely uninterested in the ideas of his father and grandfather. He loved the thrill of hunting more than the excitement of ideas. On the surface he seemed to be in a spiritual desert, devoid of spiritual water. Yet Isaac understood that every creation has a spark within it,that every child has a reservoir of pure water within themselves. The job of the parent and educator is to drill the well, remove the dirt and discover the water.

Thus Isaac embodied laughter. Isaac mastered the skill of seeing the good in unexpected places. He had the ability to mine the holiness that lay in the heart of every person and in the soul of every activity.  

As the children of our patriarchs and matriarchs we are heirs to the qualities and characteristics they embodied. From Isaac we inherited the ability to be joyous in the face of great challenge. From Isaac we learn to expect the unexpected; to believe in ourselves and in the people around us. From Isaac we inherit the power to create laughter, to discover the deeper truth of reality that is not always noticeable to the naked eye. From Isaac we learn to drill beneath the surface and find the holiness in every person and the good in every experience.

Adapted from Torah Or Parshas Toldos (Mayim Rabim).


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