This week’s Torah portion is Vayeira. We continue to see Avraham’s avinu’s outlook expressed and take hold in the world. We are talking about a fascinating and multi-faceted parasha. It would have been nice if even one of the stories that appear in this parasha could have found its way into the legalistic book of Leviticus… 😊
Typically, when we talk about our parasha, we occupy ourselves with its momentous stories and their meanings up until our own time – the story of Sodom and Gemorrah with the negotiations where Avraham convinces G-d not to destroy the city of Sodom if only 50 righteous men can be found, then reduces the number to 40 and so on, along with the challenging question of, “Will the One who judges all the world not judge (fairly for the sake of the righteous)?”; the story of Hagar and Yishmael being sent away from Avraham’s house and the relationship between us and our Arab cousins, the descendants of Yishmael, until today; the story of the binding of Yitzchak (“Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Yitzchak”), a Mount Moriah story for the ages, a story of sacrifice that ends with these eternal words: “Do not lay a hand on the youth” since G-d does not demand human sacrifices.
Usually we speak, justifiably, about the above subjects. They present ethical dilemmas and basic issues for us to contemplate. We could spend our whole lives trying to answer questions such as “How does Avraham dare to speak to G-d the way he does, to negotiate and argue with Him?” or “What kind of relationship should we have with our cousins, the descendants of Yishmael?” or “Why was Hagar sent away?” or “How does Avraham – who stands up and fights for Sodom – obey the command to sacrifice his son without protest, and what is the message of this story?”.
But we will not address any of these questions today. Instead, we will focus on two “little” stories that, in general, we learn about in kindergarden. Yet these stories involve two central elements of our lives. The first element is: kindness.
The first of these stories concerns Avraham’s tent and its four openings, on every side, so that people passing by could immediately enter, no matter on which side they arrived. This is a classic kindergarden tale and in numerous Jewish kindergardens throughout the world, this week’s newsletter will include this story, leaving the weightier stories from the parasha for the adults. The birth of Yitzchak, too – how everyone came to celebrate with laughter and joy, and how every sick person was healed on this occasion – is also told during this week in kindergardens (well, it does make more sense than to tell kindergardeners the story of the binding of Isaac)…
So, today we are going back to kindergarden. We are returning to these two stories. And, really, has anyone heard lately about the destruction of Sodom, or engaged with G-d in a heated, up close and personal debate? Have any of you thought, in practical terms, about what you would do if Yishmael was living in your tent? Is anyone confronted 24 hours a day with a dilemma like the binding of Yitzchak? Of course, the weightier parts of our Torah portion also influence our lives, but Here, too, however, there can be battles and “bindings.” So let’s get started.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe defined the story of Avraham’s welcoming the angels (dressed like Arabs) into his tent as the “complete Shulchan Aruch of kindness.” Just as the Shulchan Aruch covers what we are supposed to do when it comes to the nuts and bolts of daily Jewish living, so too does this story instruct regarding proper conduct where the practice of kindness is concerned.
וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה’ בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם
Now the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot. (Genesis 18:1)
The previous parasha ended with the circumcision of Avraham avinu. The Holy One, Blessed be He, stops by to visit Avraham, since he is recovering from surgery and not feeling well. Rashi writes: “And He appeared to Him – to visit the sick.” And what about “at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot?” Rashi answers: “to see if there were any passersby to bring into his house.”
So this is the picture: Avraham was circumcised at an advanced age, he is in the presence of the Holy One Blessed be He, in a moment of extreme closeness and spiritual elevation. Despite the heat, he is sitting at the entrance of his tent in order to watch out for any passersby who might need something.
I am reminded here of Rav Ya’akov Edelstein, a tzadik of blessed memory who lived in Israel. An English Artscroll version of a book we wrote about him and his many acts of kindness will soon appear. One of the stories about him concerned someone who knocked on his door at a very late hour of the night. His house was really “a tent of Avraham avinu,” and the person who was knocking heard whispers from the other side of the door – “it’s late, let’s open, let’s not open” – until the rav said: “Open, maybe someone needs something.” Maybe someone needs something – what a wonderful sentence! It is lifted straight from Rashi’s “to see if there were any passersby to bring into his house.” Later in the parasha, when called upon to sacrifice his son, Avraham will tell the Holy One Blessed be He: “Hineini, I am here (for you),” but now, too, Avraham, in effect, says “Hineini.” This, too, is a case of mesirut nefesh, self-sacrifice. You see, Avraham does not have just one extraordinary moment of mesirut nefesh, of a willingness to give up everything. Rather, in keeping his tent always open, he experiences such moments throughout his life.
וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אָרְצָה
And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. (Genesis 18:2)
“And he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent” – it was not enough that we was sitting at the entrance to welcome them but he had to get up from where he sat and run towards them because, in the words of Rav Edelstein, “maybe someone needs something.”
Rav Ovadia Sforno has a wonderful comment on “he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent.” Sforno writes: “Something done briskly, with eager enthusiasm, is important in the eyes of the one who does it.” It’s a basic principle: “something done briskly is important in the eyes of the one who does it.” You want to check if something is important to you? Check and see if you do it briskly, with eager enthusiasm. When I make a to-do list, I list at the top those items that are easy and fun and list the more taxing items at the bottom. For Avraham, the other person – and what that person needs – is always at the top of the list.
I think that Avraham is teaching something critical for all of humanity in today’s world. Because of the technological age in which we live, we are in a battle to maintain our humanity. If three strangers passed by us, we would not even know it because we would be looking at our cell phones. And even if G-d himself came to speak with us, we would not notice because we would be looking at our cell phones.
In a cartoon by Yoni Salmon, the Messiah arrives on a white donkey but no one notices because everyone is looking at their cell phone. In the cartoon, the people are fixated on their phones, blind to reality, cut off from and not speaking to each other. Someone said that perhaps they just got an alert that the Messiah had come… Avraham raises his eyes and sees the other.
וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.
And he said, “My lord(s), if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant.”
To whom is Avraham speaking?
First possibility: to the passersby; “My lords,” he is saying, “don’t just pass on by, allow me to be of assistance to you, be my guests.”
Second possibility: to G-d; he is saying, as if he is putting G-d on hold, “I have guests but I will be back right away, wait for me.” This does not really make sense since it is not very respectful.
But there is a third possibility: Avraham is indeed speaking to G-d, but is making a request. G-d, it seems, came to teach Avraham something about His character and now Avraham has just demonstrated that he learned the lesson. G-d comes to Avraham and illustrates the obligation of visiting the sick. In doing so, G-d begins to reveal his character traits to Avraham, primary among them is chesed (kindness). Avraham proves he has learned the importance of chesed – that he has internalized G-d’s message – by running to greet the three passersby. By running to greet them, he does not separate from G-d but becomes attached to the G-dly ideal of chesed. And now let’s read the verse one more time.
וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.
And he said, “My Lord, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant.”
Avraham is requesting something profound: “Lord, it might seem that I am leaving you right now, leaving your Divine Presence in order to occupy myself with hospitality for strangers, but I am requesting from you only this: if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant but remain beside me always.”
Avraham is requesting that the feeling of intimate closeness with G-d should remain with him even as he goes about everyday chores. In a short while, Avraham is going to sweep the floor, wash dishes, prepare meat, and serve food to his guests. His prayer is that he should continue to feel holiness and the meaning of the Divine Presence even while engaged in these activities. Every one of us could use this prayer, that we may merit to bring the big things into “little” things, that G-d will not pass on from us or leave our side.
Indeed, our sages tell us: “And you should walk in His ways: just as he is compassionate, you should be compassionate, just as he performs acts of lovingkindness, so should you perform acts of lovingkindness.” That is, the moment we understand that G-d acts with lovingkindness towards us every moment that we exist, we also understand that we must walk in his ways and act with lovingkindness, too, all the time. The moment that G-d “lowers” himself to visit a recuperating Avraham, Avraham understands that it is his task to lower himself to show hospitality to strangers.
The Ma’or Einayim, Rav Menachem Nachum from Chernobyl, wrote about this as follows: “Therefore he (Avraham) requested ‘Please don’t pass by/leave me’(when I welcome the strangers) because there, too, is His glory, may He be blessed, and there, too, I will not be separated from Him, and there, too, He is, may He blessed, exactly as He is here.”
Let us continue:
יֻקַּח נָא מְעַט מַיִם וְרַחֲצוּ רַגְלֵיכֶם וְהִשָּׁעֲנוּ תַּחַת הָעֵץ
Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet, and recline under the tree. (Genesis 18:4)
And Rashi comments: “He thought that they were Arabs, who prostrate themselves to the dust of their feet, and he was strict not to allow any idolatry into his house.”
What’s going on here? On the one hand, drawing people near and, on the other hand, keeping distance from them. Avraham has the ability to attract those who are far away, to bring the people who are the most cut off to call upon the name of G-d, but also to separate from them, when necessary, to establish very clear borders, not to get confused, and not to forget, for example, the severity of idol worship. If the heart is open and the tent is open, why are you so concerned with the dust of idol worship? Yet, this is the greatness of Avraham avinu, for he knows that kindness, too, has its limits. We do not allow forbidden things into our homes.
Avraham, after he separates himself from idolatrous dust, continues to make extra efforts for his guests:
וְאֶקְחָה פַת לֶחֶם וְסַעֲדוּ לִבְּכֶם אַחַר תַּעֲבֹרוּ כִּי עַל כֵּן עֲבַרְתֶּם עַל עַבְדְּכֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֵּן תַּעֲשֶׂה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ.
“And I will take a morsel of bread, and sustain your hearts; afterwards you shall pass on, because you have passed by your servant.” And they said: “So shall you do, as you have spoken.” (Exodus 18:5)
“Feed your hearts”. This is an interesting expression in Hebrew, as if the heart eats. In Psalms as well it says “bread, the human heart will eat.” As if, when we eat, the heart is filled and satisfied, that a meal is eaten with and for the heart. Avraham is actually begging his guests to eat, and calls himself a servant and calls them lords, in order that they will find it fitting to do him this favor. Who’s doing a favor for whom? This is a question that will accompany us in a discussion of Avraham avinu’s extending hospitality to his guests.
וַיְמַהֵר אַבְרָהָם הָאֹהֱלָה אֶל שָׂרָה וַיֹּאמֶר מַהֲרִי שְׁלֹשׁ סְאִים קֶמַח סֹלֶת לוּשִׁי וַעֲשִׂי עֻגוֹת. וְאֶל הַבָּקָר רָץ אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח בֶּן בָּקָר רַךְ וָטוֹב וַיִּתֵּן אֶל הַנַּעַר וַיְמַהֵר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתוֹ. וַיִּקַּח חֶמְאָה וְחָלָב וּבֶן הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּתֵּן לִפְנֵיהֶם וְהוּא עֹמֵד עֲלֵיהֶם תַּחַת הָעֵץ וַיֹּאכֵלוּ
And Abraham hastened to the tent to Sarah, and he said, “Hasten three se’ah of meal [and] fine flour; knead and make cakes.” And to the cattle did Abraham run, and he took a calf, tender and good, and he gave it to the youth, and he hastened to prepare it. And he took cream and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he placed [them] before them, and he was standing over them under the tree, and they ate. (Genesis 18:6-8).
“and he hastened,” “hasten thee,” “he ran,” “and he hastened”… Avraham is happy to have guests, Avraham is dancing with the food and the various dishes that he is preparing for them. This is a revolution that we could call the “revolution of happiness” (to quote the title of a popular Israeli song). The guests may be happy, but Avraham is much happier. More than they need kindness, he needs to do kindness. Look how Rav Yerucham Levovitz of the Mir Yeshiva describes Avraham’s state of mind: “The hospitality of Avraham represents a universal revolution in the area of kindness: when Avraham gives something to someone, he actually receives something from doing so. He greatly enjoys giving to others. I am not benefiting the other but rather the other, in truth, is benefiting me.”
This is not just that Avraham performs the act of giving but also a matter how he does it. What stands out here, first of all, is the enthusiasm. It’s possible to do something with an attitude of “Okay, I guess I have to do this, they’re forcing me, alright then, I’ll do it,” and it’s possible to do the same thing with “Great! What a privilege, it’s so much fun!” (This stands out among those who are fanatic about personal fitness or eating healthy, whether their devotion to self-improvement is done with bitterness or enthusiasm…).
In other words, if we are looking for a way to check ourselves, to see if we fully appreciate what it means to give to others, we need to check ourselves against the standard set by Avraham avinu – who danced on his way to prepare the calf, who danced with the tasty foods in his hands, who danced in gratitude for the privilege of having guests in his home. Rav Yerucham compares the way a shopkeeper enthuses around a customer who just walked in the door to the way Avraham would greet a guest.
וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו אַיֵּה שָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה בָאֹהֶל
And they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “Behold in the tent.” (Genesis 18:9)
And Rashi comments: “The ministering angels (guests) knew where our mother Sarah was, but [they asked in order] to make known that she was modest, in order to endear her to her husband.”
We saw in the Torah portions of the last few weeks examples of interesting questions, why a particular question is asked of someone, such as when G-d asks Adam “Where are you?” This is a deep question, not meaning “where are you?” in the physical since but “to where have you fallen, what’s your situation now?”. Afterwards, G-d asks Cain “Where is Abel, your brother?” in order to elicit from him the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. Again, G-d did not ask to learn about Abel’s physical location but to see how Cain would react. And here they ask not to inquire “Where is Sarah?”, not in order to get an answer – they are angels and know she is in the tent – but rather to remind Avraham that she’s there, with her modesty, and with the essential vitality that she brings into his life. This, too, is kindness. The angels’ kindness towards Avraham and towards Sarah.
How old are Avraham and Sarah? How many years have they been married? Rav Wolbe pauses over this and says: “Avraham is 99 years old. Our sages tell us that he married Sarah at the age of 25. In other words, they have already been married more than 70 years. This is something new: it’s not enough to make a bride and groom happy, and to cause them to rejoice in each other only on their wedding day, but even an old Jew, even one of our holy patriarchs, needs to be reminded of reasons to be affectionate towards his wife. Such is married life, that we constantly need to reinforce for the bride and groom, no matter how old, the affection they feel for each other.”
We see here that guests, too, can show acts of lovingkindness in return for the hospitality they receive, even by means of kind words since kindness is not only expressed in deeds. They can return the kindness they received with a single sentence, and this is something to think about when we are guests.
וַיֹּאמֶר שׁוֹב אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה וְהִנֵּה בֵן לְשָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ וְשָׂרָה שֹׁמַעַת פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וְהוּא אַחֲרָיו
And he said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year, and behold, your wife Sarah will have a son.” And Sarah heard from the entrance of the tent, and it was behind him. (Genesis 18:10)
And now the angels bring Avraham the good news on the expected birth of Yitzchak. Is this in the merit of his kindness? If he would not have left the Divine Presence and turned towards them, they would have passed by his tent and would not have delivered this promise to him and to Sarah. In other words, kindness gives birth to life, in the simplest meaning of the word. Kindness brings new life.
To summarize the first part of today’s class, let’s turn to Professor Nechama Leibovitz, who claims that the character of our people, the hospitality embedded in Jewish DNA, was fixed here for all time: “How much these verses influenced our ancestors,” she wrote, “in all the years of exile, to the point where a poor Jew had no desire to sit down at his table on Friday night if there was not a guest in his home, to the extent that even the poorest and lowliest of Jewish communities, in the most far flung towns, could boast of something that glorious capital cities up until today could never boast: ‘no stranger will (ever) sleep outside, my doors for a guest will always open.’” (Job 31:32).
To leave the tent of Avraham and look at Sodom is to encounter polar opposite phenomena – from a house of giving to a place of taking, from a place of selfless consideration for the other to a place of violence, murder, egoism, and materialism. It’s amazing that, until today, these two opposite realities have become part of our culture. People can shout, “Where are we here, in Sodom?” or, in reference to someone who shows overflowing hospitality, people still day “this feels like the home of Avraham avinu.”
Over the last few months, we have been privileged to enjoy hospitality in so many places – in the neighborhood we moved into and in the communities where we have been guests, and this is an opportunity to thank so many families for so much hospitality, in the spirit of Avraham avinu…
Let’s continue with the second subject that is woven in between the lines of our Torah portion. We learned about kindness and how kindness brings life, but for that to happen faith is necessary and here we see a new word – laughter – is introduced. Until today, we use it in Hebrew with the same meaning. And we might want to say that laughter is not funny, it’s a serious matter. In a moment, we are going to see different types of laughter and how important it is to be aware of the laughter inside of us.
Laughter already appears in the previous parasha, Lech lecha. There, Hashem gives Avraham the news that he will have a son, that he will have many descendants, and the reaction is:
וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָהָם עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּצְחָק וַיֹּאמֶר בְּלִבּוֹ הַלְּבֶן מֵאָה שָׁנָה יִוָּלֵד וְאִם שָׂרָה הֲבַת תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה תֵּלֵד
And Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and he said to himself, “Will [a child] be born to one who is a hundred years old, and will Sarah, who is ninety years old, give birth?” (Genesis 17:17)
And in our Torah portion, we will hear the same good news, but this time with Sarah’s reaction to it:
וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה לִּי עֶדְנָה וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן
And Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have become worn out, will I have smooth flesh? And also, my master is old.” (Genesis 18:12)
Rashi explains that there is a difference here between laughter and laughter:
And Avraham fell on his face and laughed: Heb. וַיִּצְחָק. Onkelos renders this as an expression of joy, וַחֲדִי “and he rejoiced,” but the one [וַתִּצְחָק] in the case of Sarah (below 18:12) [he renders] as an expression of laughter. You learn that Abraham believed and rejoiced, but Sarah did not believe and ridiculed, and for this reason, the Holy One, blessed be He, was angry with Sarah, but was not angry with Avraham.
Avraham laughs from sheer joy, happiness, fervor, and faith. Sarah laughs a different laugh, internally. In other words, deep inside. This is not expressed outwardly. She heard the news about the birth of Yitzchak and she did not mock the angels, she did not erupt in laughter in their presence, heaven forbid. She expressed her doubts to herself alone.
וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל אַבְרָהָם: לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר: הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי?
And the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Is it really true that I will give birth, although I am old?’” (Genesis 18:13)
Wait a minute. It had appeared that Avraham “left” G-d to attend to his guests. And, yes, the guests are here, but G-d is, too. G-d did not leave him, Avraham’s prayer was answered. He serves meat and water and also speaks with G-d. And here G-d returns in order to speak with Avraham and with Sarah, too, and He has a most meaningful discussion with them.
Rashi: although I am old — scripture altered [her statement] for the sake of peace, for she had said, “and my master is old.”
Let’s compare the verses, what she says internally and what G-d quotes from her, as if she said something else. And this, too, is kindness: not to tell someone what others say or think about them. Today there is an approach that elevates straight talk and puts everything out there; it’s an approach where every fact is all-important, where authenticity and free expression and truth-telling reign supreme. But no, that’s not proper. G-d teaches us here the quality of restraint, concealment, protecting another’s honor – in this case, Avraham’s. The Holy One Blessed be He is the G-d of truth, His words have the seal of truth, but to quote someone’s words incorrectly for the sake of peace – that is the right thing to do, that is real truth.
There is an amazing approach here to preserving intimacy in a relationship, enunciated in our parasha several thousand years ago. We see here the sensitivity that maintaining intimacy requires, even after decades of marriage – the concern for every word and the importance of not insulting the other person.
Let’s continue. The subject of internal laughter takes up a lot of space. But why? What difference does it make? Sarah did nothing wrong and did not say anything improper. Well, our internal voice is very significant. And here, G-d continues:
הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵה’ דָּבָר לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה וּלְשָׂרָה בֵן
וַתְּכַחֵשׁ שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר לֹא צָחַקְתִּי כִּי יָרֵאָה וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא כִּי צָחָקְתְּ
“Is anything hidden from the Lord? At the appointed time, I will return to you, at this time next year and Sarah will have a son.” And Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh,” because she was afraid. And He said, “No, but you laughed.” (Genesis 18:14-15)
Chanan Porat comments incisively on these verses. He draws our attention to “and Sarah laughed internally.” Why internally? He explains as follows:
“Her laughter was not only hidden from others but also from herself. It had slowly seeped into her subconscious mind, and was expressed in her lack of faith to become pregnant and give birth. Aside from the Master of the Universe, no one knew about Sarah’s laughter and she, too, was not conscious of it. Therefore, in response to G-d’s question “Why did you laugh?” she answered “I didn’t laugh”. Why does the Master of the Universe insist on uncovering Sarah’s dark secret? Because as long as Sarah’s laughter will not ascend from her subconscious into her conscious mind, this lack-of-faith laughter will continue to seep into the depths of her soul, without her being able to deal with it openly and remove it at the root. And lack of faith does not only have influence in the spiritual realm but in the realm of action, too. The Master of the Universe “has to do flips” around Sarah in order for her to deal with her emotional and spiritual blockage on the subject of her fertility. We see that this is true with the individual who fights alone, as well as with a nation at war with its enemies. The capacity to be victorious depends on internal faith. This new, higher level of consciousness will change the character of Sarah’s laughter from that of mockery and faithlessness to that of faith, joy, and gratitude: And Sarah said, “G-d has made laughter (joy) for me; whoever hears will laugh (rejoice) over me.” (Genesis 21:6)
These are the words of Chanan Porat. Yes, the parents will eventually call their son Yitzchak, but before they do, Sarah’s laugh must be genuine, transformed from laughter of disbelief to laughter of faith.
And perhaps, in reflecting on these verses, we should also ask ourselves: What hidden laughter have we allowed to seep into our souls? Which venomous, minimizing, poisonous laughter do we laugh inside ourselves without even knowing it and, in so doing, not allow big things to happen to us? Only G-d knows about this laughter and He says to us: pay attention and get rid of it, do not claim it’s not there – as G-d tells Sara, “No, you laughed.” We cannot allow lack of faith to permeate the deepest part of ourselves because our ability to be victorious depends on inner faith. And, of course, in the case of Chanan Porat, this is true both on the individual and national level.
We must believe that reality can always surprise us and change for the better. This is the message of Lech lecha – come, it will be good, there will be a nation, there will be a land, there will be a Torah, there will be a Yitzchak…
And indeed, in the words of Rashi, in his explanation of the name Yitzchak, he brings together two interpretations that, in fact, complement each other.
Rashi: and you shall name him יצחק/ Yitzchak because of the rejoicing (צחוק/Tzhok), And some say because of the ten (י) trials, and Sarah’s ninety (צ) years, and the eighth (ח) day on which he was circumcised, and Abraham’s hundred (ק) years.
On the one hand rejoicing and on the other hand hardship, trials, advanced age, circumcision… We laugh despite and because of all these difficulties.
The parasha continues to present us with other, oppositional types of laughter: Lot laughs, Yishmael laughs, and in the future whoever builds the golden calf will get up and laugh… this is laughter of disbelief, of violence, of wickedness, of heresy. But our Torah portion goes on to speak about kosher and truly joyful laughter:
וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם אֶת שֶׁם בְּנוֹ הַנּוֹלַד לוֹ אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לּוֹ שָׂרָה יִצְחָק… וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרָה: צְחֹק עָשָׂה לִי אֱלֹהִים, כָּל הַשֹּׁמֵעַ יִצְחַק לִי
And Abraham named his son who had been born to him, whom Sarah had borne to him, Isaac. . . And Sarah said, “God has made joy for me; whoever hears will rejoice over me.” (Genesis 21:3,6)
Rashi: Many barren women were remembered with her; many sick people were healed on that very day; many prayers were answered with hers, and there was much joy in the world.
And if we are already talking about cynicism, about lack of faith, I must tell the story of Moshe Yeret, a bus driver who writes a blog in Israel. This is a very deep story, in my opinion.
Several weeks ago, a mother and her young daughter boarded Moshe’s bus. They did not have enough money on their pre-paid card, so he explained to them that they should get off the bus at the next bus-stop, charge the card cheaply and continue the drive, instead of the other option which was to buy a ticket from him for more money. The mother said in response: “Thank you very much! Really, thank you very much!″ The girl heard this and told her mother: “Mom, what did the driver do wrong that you spoke with him like this?″ The mother did not understand: “He helped us, so I thanked him.″ And the daughter insisted: “You said: ‘Really, thank you very much!’. This is what people say to someone who did something wrong.″ The driver gasped at how our speech has become so cynical. Such a young girl hears the words: “Really, thank you very much!″, but she is already used to hearing these words said with such sarcasm, as something that is said not as a real thank you, but as a reproach. What does it say about us and our speech if children understand “thank you very much” as a cynical expression and not as a genuine thank you?
Let’s add one more element that has become so important over the last few years – the emoji. What provokes laughing emojis is often unclear or the laughter they express does not seem genuine. I personally cannot distinguish between the various laughing emojis, between a genuine and a cynical laughing expression. Sometimes in whatsapp groups of newsrooms and other work places, someone will bring up an idea and someone else will respond with a smiley. However, it’s not clear whether the smiley is a sign of yes or no, of approval or disapproval, if the smiley face is laughing with or laughing at…
And so the struggle between different types of laughter continues until today – first of all internally, within ourselves and among ourselves, but also between us and our enemies. Could you explain the situation in the Middle East as a struggle between the cynical laughter of Yishmael and the joyful laughter of Israel? Between the teasing and mocking laughter of Yishmael and, in the words of Sarah, “the joyful laughter that G-d has made for me”? It appears that it’s possible to look at Israel’s situation in the world in this manner, according to the kind of laughter that we laugh. Here’s an explanation from Rav Shlomo Kook, son of Rav Kook’s nephew and the grandfather of my husband, Yedidya.
“The true joy of tzadikim and wholehearted people repairs the phony laughter of the wicked. The world longs for laughter that is appropriate and authentic. Frivolity leads to denigration of everything that’s holy – holiness of faith, holiness of life, holiness of family. Laughter of the wicked is an attempt to justify and transform their corrupt deeds into something pure. Israel must quiet the wild laughter of Yishmael, a reckless laughter that destroys the foundations of the universe. Israel must accustom humanity to the laughter of those with faith, the truly pure ones, and then we will merit to see the day about which it is said: ‘Then our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with songs of joy, the Lord has done great things for us, therefore we were joyful.” (Harav Shlomo Kook, Machshevet Shlomo, Parshat Vayeira)
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains our holy laughter in a similar manner:
“Yitzchak always has an ironic smile. The beginning of the Jewish people is an absurdity. Its history, expectations, hopes, and its life – they are a frightful and absurd pretension from a realistic and intellectual point of view. G-d wanted to create a nation that would be “the finger of G-d” within humanity. From its beginning until today, this nation would stand up against all the historical forces operating against it. The laughter that resonates in the ears of the Jew walking through history is testimony to the holiness and G-dliness of the path that he took.”
It’s really funny to think that two “old folks,” 90 and 100 years old, would start a nation, that this nation would survive everything that came its way, up until “our mouth will be filled with laughter.” We are in the midst of this laughter now and, with G-d’s help, will merit, like eishet hayil, the woman of valor, “to laugh until the end of time.”
Let’s summarize the journey we made today in the footsteps of Avraham avinu in parshat Vayeira:
Avraham implants within us two qualities: the desire to practice constant kindness and the ability to enjoy our own laughter, and the laughter we bring to others, when it is based on faith – despite the difficult challenges that we face and the absurd reality in which we live.
And perhaps there is a connection between the two: when you practice kindness, you are not the center of attention and so you can easily find a place for healthy laughter. Tzadikim are, in general, full of laughter, humor, and good cheer; they just don’t take themselves all that seriously.
Thank you, until we meet again next week, with G-d’s help, for the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah.