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.””

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