Chayei Sarah | Laughter and Jewish Destiny
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
The significance of the name Yitzchak
The name Yitzchak is an interesting name. It comes from the Hebrew word for laughter, tz’chok. When Yitzchak was born, Sarah said (chapter 21 verse 6), tz’chok asa li Elokim, kol hashome’a yitzchak li, “G-d has made laughter of me; whoever hears [about the birth] will laugh.” Rashi interprets this to mean not that people will laugh but that people will rejoice. Avraham and Sarah had waited so long, and so Yitzchak’s birth brought great joy to them and to others as well, since everyone had seen them struggling for years. Rashi adds from the Midrash that many people who had been suffering from ill health or who had also been unable to have children had their prayers answered on the day that Yitzchak was born. Thus his name represents the tz’chok, the joy that his birth brought to the world.
However, the name Yitzchak has much more significance than merely the joy at the time of his birth. As one of the founding fathers of the Jewish people, his name obviously has much greater significance. This is evident in the fact that G-d himself chose his name, even before Yitzchak was born, as we read in parshat Lech Lecha, (chapter 17 verse 19): G-d said to Abraham “surely your wife Sarah will give birth to a son and you will call his name Yitzchak.” What is the significance behind this name?
Rashi offers two explanations: the first is that it is for the joy that his birth brought, as mentioned above, and the second is that the name Yitzchak is composed of four Hebrew letters – a yud, a tzadi, a chet and a kuf, each of which has numerical significance: the yud is numerically ten, referring to the ten tests with which Abraham was tested; the tzadi is numerically ninety, referring to Sarah’s age at Yitzchak’s birth; the chet is numerically eight, referring to the eighth day on which Yitzchak was circumcised; and the kuf is numerically a hundred, Abraham’s age at Yitzchak’s birth. These four letters comprising the name Yitzchak contain a reference to all of these major events: the ten tests, the ninety years of Sarah, the eighth day of the circumcision and the hundred years of Abraham.
In his commentary on Rashi, the Maharal of Prague explains that these four milestones – the ten tests, Abraham and Sarah’s age, and the eighth day on which Yitzchak was brissed – are all interconnected, and this actually answers the question of why G-d made Abraham wait for so long to have a child. G-d wanted Yitzchak to be born after the commandment of circumcision had been given, so that he would be brissed on the eighth day in accordance with the exact specifications of the mitzvah (unlike Yishmael, who had been brissed at thirteen because that is how old he was at the time Abraham received the commandment). And G-d specifically delayed the commandment of circumcision till Abraham was old, because circumcising himself at such an old age was one of G-d’s ten tests of Abraham’s faith. Abraham’s life was full of tests – leaving his home country to an unknown place, having to leave the Land of Israel once he arrived because there was a famine, circumcising himself at an old age, etc. Hashem arranged the events in Abraham’s life to revolve around these tests and therefore He delayed the commandment of circumcision, so that Avraham would be tested in his old age, and hence Yitzchak’s birth was delayed.
G-d often tests our faith. We were put in this world to pass these tests, to grow, to develop, to become bigger and better people. In the world of the souls there are no tests. We are close to G-d, everything is clear; there are no challenges and no evil inclination to lead us astray. We then come into a physical body which tries to take us away from Hashem. All of the challenges that we face in this world – such as developing good character, being people of integrity, coping with financial and all other kinds of pressures – test our faith and train us to pass these tests. Our mission in this world is to rise to the occasion and overcome all of the obstacles we encounter. All of this is encapsulated in the four letters comprising the name Yitzchak.
The real meaning of laughter
There is another aspect to this name, which is very important in terms of understanding the concept of laughter. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that if you look at the way the root TzaChaK is used throughout the Bible, you will find that it is used not in the sense of the pure, simple joy of laughter but rather with an ironic overtone, with a sense of mocking. Sarah says at the birth of Isaac Tz’chok asa li Elokim, which Rabbi Hirsch interprets as “G-d has made me a laughing stock,” i.e., a mockery. Rabbi Hirsch gives an interesting analysis of the concept of humour and explains that the Hebrew root TzaChaK is very closely related to another Hebrew root, Tza’AK. The chet and the ayin are two letters which are closely related, and are often interchangeable, and so Tza’AK and TzaChaK are closely related, though it would seem they are poles apart in meaning because tzachak means laughter and tza’ak means to call out in pain. How do we understand this relationship?
Rabbi Hirsch explains that the essence of humour – or, in other words, what makes a good joke – is an unexpected outcome. Test this and you will find that any good joke will match up with this structure: when you expect a story to end in a certain way, and then just before it ends, it changes, there is a contrast set up between your expectation and the way the story actually ends. This contrast causes us to laugh, because it is incongruent. We see two things together which don’t belong and that incongruity actually causes us to laugh. Rabbi Hirsch says this is the same with Tza’AK, to call out in pain; pain and grief are similar to laughter in that we are expecting the story to end a certain way, and it doesn’t. For example, if a person loses a loved one, G-d forbid, there is the grief of unmet expectations; we thought this person would be there forever. Even though we know that we are all mortal and that one day we are going to die, we don’t expect it and this is grief: the unexpected, the contrast, the incongruity, and that causes one to cry out in pain. So TzaChaK is the laughter, on the positive side, Tza’AK is the crying out in pain on the negative side, but the common denominator of these two words is the incongruence of the outcome. When we expect one thing and something else happens, this incongruity causes us to laugh or cry out in pain.
This really is the essence of Isaac’s birth. Here is a couple who were unable to have children for decades, and at the age of one-hundred and ninety, respectively, they have their first child together. That’s incongruent. Even people who are able to have children when they are young are not able to have them at a hundred and at ninety. Here they were unable to have children when they were younger, how possible is it that they have a child now? And on top of that, we have another incongruity: a man who is a hundred years old and a woman who is ninety looking after a new baby – it’s a joke. This is what Sarah means when she says Tz’chok asa li Elokim, “G-d has made me a laughing stock,” because look at us – we are so odd. This is not the way things are supposed to be, this is not the way the natural world works.
But this is precisely the point; this is the essence of the name Yitzchak and indeed of the Jewish people. To understand this, we must first understand why G-d set it up in such an unusual fashion, that Abraham and Sarah would struggle for so many years to have children and would only have a child in their old age.
The essence of the Jewish people: defying the laws of nature
Rabbi Hirsch explains that Abraham and Sarah were the building blocks of the Jewish people, who were going to carry the name of Hashem in the world, and one of the main messages of the Jewish people is that the physical world that we see is not everything; there is another whole reality. G-d created this world and is therefore not bound by its physical laws. There is a much higher calling for every human being – to have a relationship with G-d and to do the right thing.
This is one of the main messages of the Jewish people’s eternal existence. We are a people who defy all the normal laws of nature, who are able to see that there is something supernatural going on. This is not normal, this is not the way that it should be – it is something which is incongruent with the normal, physical reality. Says Rabbi Hirsch, the foundation of the Jewish people had to be with such a frail, rickety start – two old people with an only son – to convey the message that yes, this is incongruent and should never have been, and yet it defies the laws of nature and we are here. Looking at this family of Abraham and Sarah, we would say they have almost no chance of establishing a great nation. And yet, they did. And this very fact defies the laws of nature.
Cold logic would dictate that this shouldn’t work; Abraham and Sarah’s family should have no continuity. This is why G-d chose this very name for the second of the Forefathers, because it captures the essence of Jewish destiny and the mission of the Jewish people in the world. People will laugh: look at this tiny, insignificant nation, a drop in the ocean relative to the nations of the world. You would think that we’re unheard of, that we would not make any impact, that we should not even survive. By all the normal laws of nature, the Jewish people should not be in existence today, and yet we are here.
Some 250 years ago Rav Yaakov Emdin wrote in his introduction to the Siddur that the miracle of the Jewish people’s survival in exile is a greater miracle than the miracles of the Exodus – the ten plagues of Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the manna falling from heaven. Rav Emdin penned these words long before all the modern-day miracles we have witnessed, with the establishment of the State of Israel and the rebirth of Torah learning throughout the world. These incredible miracles of our survival defy the normal laws of history. This is why, says Rabbi Hirsch, the name Yitzchak has the yud in the front of it, which conjugates the verb to the future tense. “Yitzchak” means he will laugh, in the future. There are many who are laughing now – as Sarah said, Tz’chok asa li Elokim, “G-d has made me a laughing stock”; the whole world is laughing at us, mocking us. Yet Hashem says, don’t worry; they may laugh now but in the end you, Bnei Yisrael, are going to be the ones laughing. You are going to survive and defy the laws of history. You will be reborn and demonstrate how a people can exist on a completely different, miraculous plane, above the physical laws of this world.
Every Shabbat just before the bentching, we say a paragraph from Tehillim -the Shir HaMa’alot. One of the verses we say is Az yimaleh s’chok pinu, “then our mouths will be filled with laughter,” referring to the time of the Final Redemption. This is the message that Yitzchak’s name carries, and it is the ultimate message of the Jewish people: that the world is not just what we see; there is so much more to it. The hand of G-d guides each and every one of us. Our mission in this world is to see G-d’s guiding hand in everything, and to know that there is so much more than what meets the eye. G-d created this world and He has a mission for each one of us. It is this personal and national destiny which takes precedence and has the capacity to defy the physical laws of nature.