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Isaac’s laughter

He was hardly the lost middle child of the book of Genesis.

Abraham and Isaac portrayed in an engraving by Ephraim Moses Lilien. Source: Wikimedia
Abraham and Isaac portrayed in an engraving by Ephraim Moses Lilien. Source: Wikimedia
Matthew Schultz
Matthew Schultz

At the start of last week’s Torah reading, Jacob, like his grandfather Abraham before him, leaves the land of his birth for new horizons. Along the way, he is confronted by God, who says to him, “I am Hashem, God of Abraham your father and God of Isaac.”

The commentators note a difficulty with this passage. Generally, God only declares himself “the God of so-and-so” after so-and-so has died. But Isaac is still alive.

Rashi offers an explanation from the Midrash: “Isaac’s eyes had become dim and he was confined to the house, so that he might be regarded as dead.”

This is hardly a flattering thing to say about an elderly, visually-impaired person, but it tracks with the Torah’s depiction of Isaac at the end of the previous week’s reading, which details how Rebekah and Jacob deceived Isaac into giving Jacob a blessing meant for his brother Esau.

In that story, Isaac is bedridden, unseeing and easily duped, which recalls another famous incident involving Isaac, one in which he is similarly inert and uncomprehending—a prop in someone else’s epic.

The story of the binding of Isaac, in which Abraham takes his son up to the top of Mount Moriah to sacrifice him to God, bears Isaac’s name, but it isn’t really his story. In it, he is utterly passive—an offering to be slaughtered by his father until the divine voice called off the kill.

So, what are we to make of Isaac? Among the many bold personalities in the book of Genesis, he seems indistinct. He is the child of a visionary father and the father of a cunning and blessed son, but is he more than a bridge between the two?

Some modern readers have opted to look at his narrative as a portrayal of family trauma. If he seems somehow transparent, it is because something vital has been taken from him. According to this understanding, the Isaac who went up the mountain was not the same Isaac who came back down.

There is, however, another way to look at Isaac, one which rejects the premise that he is the lost middle child of the book of Genesis: Isaac is born in laughter. The child of ancient parents, he is the laugh with which one greets the beautiful absurdity of a miracle.

A strange life has been ordained for him, but he lives it deeply and with joy. Towards evening, we are told, he goes out to the field “to converse.” This mysterious passage, which comes right before he meets his bride Rebekah, is interpreted as a reference to prayer. In the Talmud, it is said that this was the first Mincha service. The commentator Sforno’s description of this prayer, on the other hand, better evokes Hasidic hitbodedut meditation, in which Hasids go into nature to call out to God spontaneously: “He drifted from the path in order to pour out his heart to God.”

Later, as Isaac and Rebekah travel through the land of the Philistines, they pretend to be siblings so that Isaac will not be killed on Rebekah’s account. The two are found out, however, when King Avimelech spies them through the window “fooling around.”

The word used here, metzachek, shares a root with the word for laughter—the basis of Isaac’s name. The connotation is clearly sexual, but it is neither crude nor clinical. It is both tawdry and innocent, loving and ribald. The couple are caught in the act of enjoying one another.

Isaac is a man of blessing: “Isaac sowed and reaped a hundredfold the same year.” Another way of translating this passage, however, is that “Isaac sowed and found a hundred gates.” Indeed, it is this beautiful “mistranslation” that gives the famous neighborhood in Jerusalem—Me’ah She’arim—its name.

In the famous story of Jacob’s ladder from last week’s reading, Jacob exclaims, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gate to heaven.” How quickly we forget that, while Jacob found one such gate, Isaac found one hundred.

Much of Isaac’s story concerns the re-digging of wells that his father Abraham had dug. These wells, like the gates, are symbols of spiritual experience and attainment. While Abraham’s wells have long since been filled with dirt—Isaac reopens them. But alas, he does more than this. Digging in one of Abraham’s old wells, he finds “a well of living water.” What does it mean, the commentator Radak asks, to find a well within a well?

It means that he had done more than open the old well. He had dug deeper still and uncovered a new aquifer altogether. If we follow the metaphor, this means that he walked in his father’s spiritual path, but found new depths of spiritual truth and opened new gates of perception.

Isaac is not absent from his own story. Perhaps it’s true that he was forever changed by his time bound on the altar, but I don’t believe he was traumatized, damaged or effaced. Rather, he was initiated into a life of profundity, prophecy and passion.

As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote: “Isaac’s name is often translated ‘laughter,’ but ‘Yitzhak’ literally means ‘he will laugh.’ Yet the Bible never tells us when Isaac does indeed laugh. … Just maybe, Isaac laughed as he came down the mountain.”

Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection What Came Before (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.

Originally published by Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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