In a previous post Divine Birthers I, I explore the concept of miraculous birth and resurrection in Judaism. It’s ironic that such a heavy discussion is raised by the birth and life of a guy named Isaac … יִצְחָק which literally means to laugh and in context, means to laugh at God.
And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: ‘After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old? Is any thing too hard for the LORD. At the set time I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying: ‘I laughed not’; for she was afraid. And He said: ‘Nay; but thou didst laugh.’ Genesis 18: 12-16
וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר: אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן
וַיֹּאמֶר ה’, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם: לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד–וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי
הֲיִפָּלֵא ה’, דָּבָר; לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ, כָּעֵת חַיָּה–וּלְשָׂרָה בֵן
וַתְּכַחֵשׁ שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר לֹא צָחַקְתִּי, כִּי יָרֵאָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא, כִּי צָחָקְתְּ
And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him and Sarah said: ‘God hath made laughter for me; every one that heareth will laugh on account of me.’ Genesis 21: 6-7
וְאַבְרָהָם, בֶּן-מְאַת שָׁנָה, בְּהִוָּלֶד לוֹ, אֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ
וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה–צְחֹק, עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים: כָּל-הַשֹּׁמֵעַ, יִצְחַק-לִי
This past Rosh HaShanah, my Rabbi, Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn asked why, Isaac, the “middle Father” of the three patriarchs was featured in the Torah readings of the High Holidays? The first day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael after the birth of Isaac: Genesis 21: 9. Ironically, Ishmael is banished by Sarah because he exhibits the same trait as Isaac… he’s a jokester….
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport.
וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת-בֶּן-הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית, אֲשֶׁר-יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם–מְצַחֵק
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read of the Sacrifice of Isaac, which is admittedly not a laughing matter.
Even the Torah makes a connection between the Sacrifice of Isaac.. the Akeda and what lies before… the account of he Akeda begins with Genesis 22:1
And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I.’
וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה
Like any middle child, argued Wiederhorn, Isaac had a conflicted life and much to teach us…. ergo we read both of these troubling stories that revolve around him on the high holy days.
What connects Isaac and his jokester brother Ishmael is how these two brothers came to reconcile with each other, and forgive their father.
According to the the Talmudic sage Raba in Baba Batra 16b quoted by Wiederhorn, these two feuding brothers reunited at their father’s funeral and shiva.
Ishmael repented in the lifetime of his father. [We know this] because it says, And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him. (Genesis 25: 9) But perhaps the text arranges them in the order of their wisdom? — If that were so, then why in the verse, And Esau and Jacob his sons buried him (Genesis 35: 29) are they not arranged in the order of their wisdom? What we have to say is that the fact of the text placing Isaac first shows that Ishmael made way (‘made him lead’) for him, and from the fact that he made way for him we infer that he repented in Abraham’s lifetime. 
According to a conversation imagined by Rabbi Wiederhorn…. Ishmael was bitter and complained to Isaac that that their father had cruelly rejected and exiled him…. said Isaac “Dad rejected you… but he tried to kill me!”. It was this humor shared by these two victims of exile and persecution that brought them together.
But there’s more joking going on in this narrative. When in Genesis 26: 8 the Abimelech, king of the Philistines catches Isaac “sporting” with his wife Rebecca, many commentaries provide sexual innuendo…
And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife.
וַיְהִי, כִּי אָרְכוּ-לוֹ שָׁם הַיָּמִים, וַיַּשְׁקֵף אֲבִימֶלֶךְ מֶלֶךְ פְּלִשְׁתִּים, בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן; וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק, אֵת, רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ
I must say, I have always loved the Torah’s humor in “Isaac was sporting” “Yitchak Mitzahek” יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק but Wiederhorn makes the point that not only does the author of the Torah make us smile with this word play… but maybe, just maybe it was not gratuitous sex that was part of this screenplay … maybe for once we should take the text literally and Isaac was making his wife smile in a way that only one who is intimately connected can. Isaac, true to his name, used humor, charm and a gratuitous smile to navigate through the trials and tribulations of life. that was what Isaac was doing too…. making Rebeca smile in a way that showed the closeness of the relationship.
According to Wiederhorn’s sometimes we need to look on the bright side of life…
Writing this post in Israel, after a difficult few weeks of conflict over the Temple Mount and terror attacks with cars mowing down innocent victims waiting for a light rail, the message of Isaac could never be more timely… we … all parties.. the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar, need to smile more and make each other smile more. We share enough tragedy to smile in a way that only those sharing the same fate and suffering can. If we can’t smile together, we may never get out of the rut we’re in.
Wiederhorn was inspired by the commentary to Genesis 25:9 in the Etz Hayim Chumash: “Isaac and Ishmael are reunited at their father’s funeral, a sign that Ishmael changed his ways as he matured [BT BB 16b]. Although he could not have forgotten how his father had treated him and how his brother had supplanted him, he seems to have forgiven Abraham for having been a less-than-perfect father. Isaac too seems to have come to terms with his father’s nearly killing him on Mount Moriah.
Might these reconciliations have occurred in Abraham’s lifetime and be the reason for the Torah’s describing him as “contented” in his old age (Gen. R. 38:12)? Can we see this as a model for family reconciliations, forgiving old hurts? And can it not be a model for the descendents of Ishmael and Isaac, contemporary Arabs and Israeli Jews, to find grounds for forgiveness and reconciliation?”
3 responses to “Isaac’s smile”
Great post Geoffrey. :-))
Shabbat Shalom to you and Orna Xx Sent from my iPhone
Thanks! Love from tel aviv….
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