Serious Laughter (Ideas #129)

Ever wondered why the least funny Jew in the entire Torah should be named, “He Laughed?” And this unlikely name of the second patriarch is not something we can easily pass over – as opposed to the other two Avot, Yitzchak’s name comes directly from God. Moreover (and perhaps relatedly), as opposed to the others, his is the only name that would never be changed.



Of course, if you haven’t asked this question, it is also likely that you haven’t noticed the unusual frequency that we encounter laughter in the story of Yitzchak. As is well known, both mother and father laugh when they hear God’s proclamation of his coming birth to parents well past their childbearing years. Likewise, his brother Yishmael’s jarring laughter comes right in the middle of the Torah’s discussion of Yitzchak’s youth. Neither should we forget that it is Yitzchak who gave away his relationship to Rivkah as husband and wife, when he was “laughing” with her in front of an open window. By comparison, outside of this story, the word “tzchok” and its derivatives only appear anotherfour times in the whole Torah.



But if it is clear that the Torah wants us to notice Yitzchak’s name, it is less clear why. Part of the problem is that the word tzchok itself is more complex than meets the eye. Its various usages shows us that it can indicate something pleasant (e.g. in the Shir haMa’alot in Tehillim 126) just as much as it can indicate something inappropriate (e.g. with the golden calf in Shemot 32:6).



What all usages of this word seem to have in common is that they are all rooted in an uncoupling with the surrounding mundane “reality.” Indeed, laughter is our response to the contrast between appearance and reality. To indulge in something other than conventional reality and engage in tzchok is to live slightly apart – it is a momentary protest to a society’s norms. As such, though often innocuous on the surface, laughter is always, at least mildly, subversive.



But if laughter is really the sign of subversiveness, why is Yitzchak chosen for this role? Perhaps the answer lays in Yitzchak’s relationship (or lack thereof) to the rest of society. As is easily seen, Yitzchak is the loneliest of the patriarchs. He is neither accompanied by the servants/converts that were gathered around Avraham, nor is he surrounded by the numerous offspring which went into Egypt with Ya’akov. Also absent in the Biblical narrative is much interaction with his parents or his brother. Finally, while Ya’akov has four wives and Avraham at least two, Yitzchak barely has one – more than one commentator has noted the lack of frank discourse between him and Rivkah, to the point that his wife prefers to set up an ornate and highly questionable scheme (with the blessing of Esav) rather than to tell him that she disagreed with his plans. But precisely because of his lack of social ties, he was most able to stand apart from the world and look at it differently. In other words, he did not have to accept society’s “reality.”(1)



American political thinker, Michael Waltzer makes the claim that whereas Avraham is the one who smashes his father’s idols and thereby breaks with the past, Yitzchak, who does not rebel against his father, was “infinitely more reliable.”(2) In terms of continuity, Waltzer is certainly correct. Nonetheless, Yitzchak is simultaneously the epitome of subversiveness. For since it is ties that bind, Yitzchak’s lack of ties makes him an unfettered subversive. (In this context, it is interesting to speculate whether this is not the reason that it is specifically Yitzchak that has to be bound for G-d, as he is the only one so, otherwise, unbound.) (3)




We should remember that though Avraham was the first Jew, Yitzchak was the first born Jew. In other words, a certain paradigm of Jewish existence is created by Yitzchak’s birth, a birth in total contradiction to the physical reality of other men. Moreover, this type of birth was not only reserved for him – the birth of his own children and grandchildren would also be to parents who were physically unable to have children.



Thus, if the stability that Waltzer would like Yitzchak to represent should not completely be sacrificed on the altar of laughter, we still need to realize that the laughable birth of Yitzchak was not only reserved for him. It is true that, like Avraham, Ya’akov, Yehudah and Yosef, we must show restraint by balancing our subversive teachings with the realization that influence requires civility. At the same time, to overdo our civility, as has become the fare of many modern movements in Judaism, is to betray our very essence; for the legacy of Yitzchak is something that needs to be at the heart of every Jew.





(1) When Avraham goes to perform the sacrifice of Yitzchak, some rabbinic statements indicate that Yitzchak was also aware of what was happening. Yet, the rabbis only ascribe a concern as to the reaction of others to Avraham, and not to Yitzchak. Presumably, since Avraham is involved with the world, he has to explain what he did to all those around him, who would likely demand as much. Yitzchak, however, can simply laugh.



(2) Politics and Passion (New Haven: YUP, 2004), p.5.



(3) Another observation of note is that this “wildness” makes him somewhat similar to his brother Yishmael who, like Yitzchak and only two others (Yerushalmi, Berachot 6:1), is also named by God. It may be that the subversiveness that Abraham ultimately represented could only be fully expressed in his two essentially non-political sons.