We often think of Judaism as a heavy and serious affair. And yet, the second of our three patriarchs, Isaac, Yitzchak, is named for the laughter (tzchok) that his very existence evokes.
As the Torah makes very clear, there is good reason to laugh, and this is not lost on Sarah, Isaac’s mother: “Now Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, ‘God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh for me.’ And she added, ‘Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children! Yet I have borne a son in his old age’ ” (Genesis 21:5-7).
These verses suggest that the laughter of Isaac’s name is one of both surprise and joy; Isaac’s birth contravenes all expectations, bringing blessing and delight in its wake.
As Rashi, the French medieval commentator, writes: “Many barren women were remembered together with her, many sick were healed in that day, many prayers were answered with hers, and there was great rejoicing in the world.”
Our mystical Chasidic commentators add further dimensions to this joy. For example, Rabbi Nathan Sternhartz (the primary disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov), points out that Isaac is the first person to be born as a Jew. Therefore, Isaac’s birth was a key moment in history, which prompted “great rejoicing in every world”.
Why would this be so? Rabbi Sternhartz teaches that given the Jewish commitment to, and proclivity for, improving the world, Isaac’s birth marks the beginning of a chain of tikkun (repair) that continues until the long-anticipated messianic era of global peace and justice (Likutei Halachot, Laws of Shabbat 6:23).
The great Chasidic master, Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin, offers a beautiful teaching about the element of surprise evoked by Isaac’s name. He reminds us that both Sarah and Abraham had long since been biologically incapable of creating a child. Moreover, they had, quite understandably, given up on this possibility. Hence when God first told Abraham that Sarah would bear him a son, “Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed” (Genesis 17:17).
Rav Tzadok writes that since Isaac, the very first Jew to be born, was born in such seemingly impossible circumstances, we should never make the mistake of despairing or giving up, whether in material or spiritual matters (Divrei Sofrim, Chapter 16).
The very existence of our people, from the very beginning, has defied all natural laws, and all reasonable expectations. And the same can be said for our achievements and contributions down through the millennia.
May we continue, like Isaac, to bring joy, laughter and wonder to the world.
Rabbi Silverstein runs the website Applied Jewish Spirituality