May 21, 2019

The Complicated Role of Laughter in Judaism

“Last week’s Torah reading of Lekh-L’kha (Genesis 12-17) tells the story of the birth of Abraham’s elder son Ishmael. By contrast, this week’s reading of Vayera (Genesis 18-22) has at its center the birth of his younger son Isaac. I say “by contrast” because, from the very start, beginning with the circumstances of their birth and their respective names, the text makes the difference between the two boys especially stark. Nor are these differences just a matter of literary curiosity; rather, they present divergent ways of relating to God.

The story begins when Sarah, despairing of her infertility, gives her maidservant Hagar to Abraham, hoping “to be built up through her.” Yet Hagar, once pregnant, ceases to treat her mistress with respect, and Sarah drives her from her home. At a desert oasis, an angel appears to Hagar and reassures her that she will bear a son whom she will name Ishmael—literally, “God listened”—“because the Lord has listened to your affliction.” The name Ishmael thus signifies to Hagar that God has taken note of her suffering and answered her prayers.

Naming is altogether an important motif in Genesis, but Ishmael and Isaac are the only two figures whose names are foreordained by divine decree. In Hebrew, “Ishmael” rhymes almost perfectly with “Israel,” the name of the Jewish people, containing the same number of syllables and ending with the same name of God (“El”). Indeed, the name Ishmael seems ideal for a biblical patriarch and would logically have fit the much-awaited birth of Isaac, whose father quite openly pleads with God to remedy his lack of an heir. Paradoxically, however, Isaac will instead be given, and again by divine decree, the wholly irreverent name of Yitzḥak—it simply means “he will laugh.””

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"The biggest topic in British political circles on Monday wasn’t the country’s impending departure from the European Union. It was milkshakes..."

"I often disagree with Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., but I've been disturbed by the idea that he should be run out of the Republican Party just because he believes President Trump committed impeachable offenses."

"The Icelandic band Hatari, whose members are quite vocal in their animosity towards Israel, held up Palestinian flags... Madonna, likewise, had two of her performers wear Israeli and Palestinian flags on their costumes."

"To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, I turn to movie critic Roger Ebert's old review of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." (Trust me on this one.)"

"The money is already here—and has been for years. In the midst of a housing crisis, an injection of cash into the superheated real-estate market seems likely to cause an uptick in evictions and displacement."

"Parents concerned about YouTube debate whether to let their children have their own channels; some forbid it, others send them to summer camp..."

"‘I Had Completely Lost the Knack for Staying Alive..." Warmer weather brings daffodils, rhubarb at the farmer’s market — and, for some, despair."

"With his new book, Howard Stern proves that his rightful place is among the prophets and moral visionaries, not the ‘shock jocks’"

"I’m terrified of parenting in the anti-vaxxer age: Anti-vaccine propaganda isn’t just harmful to children. It threatens to erode our entire sense of community."

"...doctors are starting to think more about specific nutrients that feed tumor cells. That is, how what we eat affects how cancers grow..."

"...it represents an impressive achievement: a victory of humankind against the chaos that pervades the universe."

"If trends continue, in 20 years the majority of the world’s Jews will be living in Israel. The United States will see a continuing decline in overall numbers, with a growing observant Jewish population..."