Torah for the Times    

Friday, November 11, 2011 - 14 Chesvan, 5772

Torah Reading: Vayera (Genesis  18:1 - 22:24)
Candle Lighting Time: 4:23 PM
Shabbat Ends: 5:24 PM 

Whos' Laughing Now

Everyone is Laughing

Yitzchak ,or Isaac, is the name given the second of our forefathers. In last week’s parsha, G‑d told Abraham that he will father a son, and that the son should be named Yitzchak. In this week’s parsha, where we read about his miraculous birth—Abraham was a hundred years old and Sarah was ninety!—the Torah seems to give the reason for the choice of the name Yitzchak which translates as “he will laugh.” After mentioning that Abraham named him Yitzchak, the Torah relates that Sarah exclaimed: “G‑d has made me happy. Whoever hears will be happy with me.” Apparently,his name is related to the idea of laughter and joy.

It seems that everything about Yitzchak’s birth revolved around laughter. Abraham laughed when G‑d told him he would father a child. Sarah laughed when the angel told her she would have a child. And now Sarah speaks of how everyone will laugh when they hear about the miracle of her having a child.
The name Yitzchak is written in the future tense. It implies that there will be laughter in the future.

And the question has been raised, why name him "laughter" because of the future? Weren’t there already peals of laughter emanating from the principals? Abraham and Sarah laughed heartily and so did all the people who heard about this incredible miracle. Moreover, Rashi explains, citing the words of the Midrash, that “Many barren women were remembered with her, many sick people were healed on that day, many prayers were answered with hers, and there was much joy in the world.”

The question that arises is actually a double one: First, why was his name in the future tense when he already evoked the laughter? His name should have therefore been Tzchok, which simply means laughter.  Second, why did Sarah seem to suggest that the laughter associated with the birth of Isaac was the laughter of all those who would hear about his birth and the miracles they would experience? Why wouldn’t it suffice that the name Yitzchak was justified and appropriate due to the laughter of his own parents?

Two Tiers of Laughter

One could suggest an answer to these questions based on the definition of true joy and laughter. There is relative laughter and joy based on the moment’s good news and there is the enduring laughter that transcends the moment.

In an earlier section of the Torah, Rashi records a heretic’s argument to a Sage. Why did G‑d create man if He knew that he would have to be destroyed in the Great Flood. The rabbi answered with an analogy of the birth of a child. “When the child is born the parents rejoice even though they know that he will eventually die. The rationale is that ‘when it is the time for joy there is joy, when it is a time to grieve one grieves.’ Similarly, G‑d knew that they will sin and be destroyed; nevertheless He did not refrain from creating them because of the righteous that will arise from them.”

Rashi’s answer to the heretic should have ended with “similarly: when G‑d created the world it was a time of joy and when He destroyed it is a time to grieve.” Why does He conclude with the reference to the righteous?

It seems that Rashi is drawing a distinction between human joy and laughter and G‑d’s. A human being, who is finite, must live in the moment. His joy is based on what happens at that specific time. Human joy—and conversely human sorrow—is based on the here and now.

G‑d, however, who is infinite and transcends the bounds of time and space, sees the ultimate future. G‑d sees the righteous who will emerge from humanity, and therefore He can rejoice in the present not only because of the good of the moment. He can rejoice even as He knows the future destruction because G‑d knows the ultimate future as well. His joy is based on both the temporal and the eternal.
When Isaac was born, there was no question that it was a source of joy for his parents. However, this joy was not the ultimate joy since nothing in the physical world lasts forever. G‑d therefore named him Yitzchak, not for the present joy which is fleeting, but because Yitzchak points to the distant future—in the Messianic Age—when there will be only unmitigated and unadulterated joy.


Abraham and Sarah, however, were not privy to G‑d’s vision of the ultimate future. So when they heard that G‑d wanted their son named Yitzchak, which implied that the real joy would come in the future, we might presume that they had to be puzzled as to what future event could justify calling him Yitzchak. If his name was tzchok/laughter in the present tense, they would have had no problem in understanding that a child is a source of joy, especially one who was born miraculously at their ripe old age. However, to name him based on the future baffled them. What future event justifies calling him Yitzchak more than any other person?

Sarah therefore concluded that the joy of the future would be the joy shared by all the other people who would experience their own private miracle of bearing children, as mentioned in the above cited comment of Rashi. To Sarah, the joy that will be experienced by others explained why his name was in the future tense. It indicated that his birth will continue to bring joy even after he was born. Sarah was not aware, at that time, that Isaac’s association with laughter was connected with the much more distant future: the Messianic Age about which it is said, “Then our mouths will be filled with laughter.” Yitzchak, more than Abraham and Jacob, was a portent of the ultimate future.

Digger of Wells and Defender of Israel

The close connection of Isaac and the future redemption is echoed in the Talmudic discussion (Tractate Shabbat 89b) that cites a Biblical verse (Isaiah 63) that in the future the Jewish people will single out Isaac for recognition because he will find ways of vindicating the Jewish people. Isaac, despite his association with the Divine attribute of gevurah/judgment—in contradistinction to Abraham, who personified kindness and Jacob who epitomized compassion—was the Patriarch who wanted to bless his son Esau. And in the future he will find ways of defending and exonerating even the most sinful Jews, making them all worthy of the future Redemption. 

How can we explain this anomaly? Abraham and Jacob, the Talmud relates there, could not find the means to defend their children. How then was Isaac able to defend them?

One way of answering this question is to reflect on the difference between the trait of kindness and the trait of judgment. Conventional thinking has it that a judgmental person will be harsher in judging a sinner than a person imbued with genuine kindness and compassion. However when one reflects on the true nature of judgment we can discover the opposite to be true.

Isaac is known for his digging wells. Chassidic thought explains that digging wells is also a metaphor for digging deeply within one’s own character, probing the inner recesses of one’s heart and soul. When one digs deep, they will discover hidden traces of negativity that may not show up on the surface. A person with this personality of gevurah, severity, will generally be harsher and demanding because they can detect even small traces of imperfection or insincerity.

However when we deal with a person who is a personification of the Divine attribute of gevurah coupled with the Torah’s admonition to judge everyone favorably there is a dilemma. If one were a chesed personality it is easy to see how he/she may not see the negative lurking beneath the surface of the other or may choose to ignore it. But nothing can elude the gevurah personality. He sees even the slightest hint of impurity. How then could this gevurah oriented individual be tolerant and see the good in others?

The answer is that a human being is made up of multiple layers. There is the surface layer and the subconscious, or subliminal, levels of our character. And while one may be a decent person on the surface he/she can have problems deeper down without even knowing it. However there is also a third level, one which is the very core of our souls that is even more deeply embedded within our psyche.

Who is most qualified to see that core, not just know of its existence? The answer is a gevurah personality, the well-digging Isaacs of the world.         

Isaac’s X-ray Vision

Isaac therefore is able to see a more fundamental and deeper aspect of a person’s psyche. Thus he was thus able to see the good in Esau that others could not see. Similarly, Isaac was also able to see farther into the future at which time the core goodness of each and every one of us will be fully revealed.

We can now understand why Abraham and Jacob will not be able to defend us the way Isaac can. When the surface and even the subterranean layers of some Jews becomes sullied, then even the kindest and most compassionate person might not find a way to justify their actions and be a good defense lawyer for them. It takes a tough prosecutor who probes to find the person’s guilt but who can also probe even deeper to find exculpatory evidence that will exonerate the accused. Likewise, the true gevurah individuals, while they can see all the underlying flaws, can also see the goodness that is latent within the innermost precincts of the person.

Yitzchak is thus the symbol of the future. Just as he can see beneath the surface of personalities where no one else can dive, so too Yitzchak will be able to see beyond the surface layers of time and space. He exclusively sees beyond the here and now.

Yitzchak’s birth introduces laughter; but not the temporal laughter associated with every other birth. His was the laughter that transcended all bounds. His laughter affected everyone and did not cease. Yitzchak's laughter is the symbol of the Messianic Age about which the Psalmist says: “Then our mouths will be filled with laughter.” At that time we will all experience the genuine joy that can never be muted or diminished.     
Moshiach Matters 

It should be noted once again, as I have said many times, that the Rabbis must publicize the legal decree that "all the appointed times have passed" (Sanhedrin 97b). In regard to repentance [as the Talmud continues, "the coming of Moshiach depends only on repentance], repentance has already been done and all aspects of Divine service have already been completed. All that remains now is the true and complete Redemption in actual reality. (The Rebbe upon greeting Harav HaGaon Mordechai Eliyahu, 6 Marcheshvan, 5752-1992)
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