Friday, October 30, 2015

Parashat Vayeira: Absurd Laughter in times of Darkness

Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s Parashat HaShavua, we read about the birth and near-death of Isaac, whose name means "will laugh". When you consider Isaac's terse character and likely PTSD, the name seems odd. His name comes from the laughter of his mother, Sarah, who laughs inwardly in disbelief when she hears the prophesy that she will have a baby in her old age, but it’s worth asking the question: will Isaac also have laughter in his life? In her book, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, Avivah Zornberg quotes Baruch Spinoza, a great medieval thinker often considered the first secular Jew, who said “To laugh, to suffer, to rejoice, to hate, and to weep are to affirm the reality of the self.” Zornberg says that actually, Sarah’s laughter is not exactly the kind of laughter that Spinoza is talking about. Spinoza is setting up laughter as definitively joyful, distinct and separate from the suffering or weeping that are also a part of the human condition, whereas Zornberg is pointing out that Sarah’s laughter doesn’t seem all that happy, and when Isaac is born, she thinks that others will laugh at her for having a baby so late in life. Zornberg doesn't say it directly, but I think there is something in this explanation of Sarah's laughter that also leads us to the possibility of laughter for Isaac. Sometimes, when things feel bad, there’s nothing left to do but laugh at it in its absurdity, laugh inwardly and cynically. As the medieval rabbi RambaN (not to be confused with Rambam) says, when one laughs outwardly, it is of joy, but when one laughs inwardly, as Sarah did and maybe Isaac too, it is a laughter of denial and "cannot be said to be joyful." Zornberg also says that laughter is the closest thing two non-twins can share to private, wordless language. It is often non-sensical, and when shared with others, communicates deeply without real words: "silence is the essence".
The walk up to Mount Moriah is silent and without laughter, and although Isaac is saved by the messenger of God, things are never again quite right for this family after the experience at Mount Moriah. Laughter keeps us sane. It keeps us together. Even in cynicism and anger, there is room for laughter. May you all find something to laugh at and someone to laugh with this Shabbat and everyday. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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