A Random Walk With Rashi: Goodfathers

“Funny how? I mean, funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? How am I funny? Tell me. Tell me what’s funny.”

If ever there were a classic scene that involved nervous laughter, it would be in this (sanitized) scene from the movie Goodfellas. Perhaps the closest our study group has come to laughter of any type, in Torah, are the scenes involving Sarah, first when she hears about having a son (Genesis 18:12), and now again, when she actually gives birth to Isaac.

Genesis 21:6
Sarah said, “G-d has made laughter for me; whoever hears will laugh for me”.

It certainly seems to be an odd verse at this particular point in the story, and for Sarah, an odd thing to say at all, let alone following Isaac’s birth. The first thing we notice, are the variations on the same word being used for not only the name itself, Yitzchak, but also the Hebrew words for [brought me] laughter and laugh [for] me.

These three words, in turn, remind us that the English language translations we have available for each can also tend to vary widely, having the potential to provide very different meanings – whether unintentionally, or at times, the result of different translators having a goal or agenda in mind.

For instance, it is not at all clear whether Sarah is concerned that others will laugh ‘at me’, or ‘for me’, or perhaps even ‘with me’ – yet the differences between each seem profound. In turn, the connotation of laughter here can range from ridicule on the one hand, to celebration and joy on the other. And while we’re at it, who might she be talking to at all?

And what, you may ask, does Rashi think?

WILL LAUGH FOR ME This means will rejoice over me. And an aggadic Midrash says: Many infertile women were remembered and conceived along with her [
Sarah]. Many sick people were cured on that day. May prayers were answered along with hers. And there was much cheerfulness in the world.

Nice thought, and certainly didn’t occur to most of us. According to Rashi, it seems, the verse tells us that a veritable baby boom seems to have ensued with the birth of Isaac. It makes sense. If, indeed, the orifices of Abimelech and all his people were suddenly re-opened, this would correspond with the births of a great many children.

But just as the baby boom that followed the “greatest generation” of World War II has itself become a bit of a bust by comparison, so too will we find that the generation of Isaac is destined to become a bit of a mediocre one in our story. In both cases, it seems, sheer numbers may correspond with great potential, but not necessarily great results.

But back to funny.

We never do learn what, if anything, might have been funny enough to prompt laughter, so it seems that Sarah’s laughter, both times, is likely due to things other than humor. There are more than enough reasons why people laugh, perhaps as a nervous response (noting, for instance, how those who may lose their place during an aliya will often laugh nervously at themselves), or the infectious nature of others laughing, or even the laughter that might be associated with an uncontrolled, sudden release of emotion.

The Women’s Torah Commentary provides at least one reasonable explanation, when it suggests that Sarah’s first laughter was a nervous one, kept internal, yet still overheard by an angel and conveyed to Abraham by G-d (leading to G-d’s famous white lie, changing her original “Abraham is old” to “I, Sarah am old”). By stark contrast, her current laughter is very different – joyous, outward, shared with, and engulfing all around her.

In spite of the common denominator being Sarah’s laughter, these couldn’t be two more different situations.

Yet the presence of this particular verse here and now in the story, raises questions as well. The verse clearly appears after Isaac’s circumcision, but if so, when, and why now?

Would there have been a next event or date in Isaac’s life that might have prompted such a response? Not as far we can tell. The closest we could think would be by distant analogy to the Talmud, which presumably tells us how old one must be in order to be entitled to the world to come (olam ha’ba, or the afterlife) – putting aside whether one has actually earned that right.

According to Talmud, five rabbis had offered five different opinions on the topic of when one might be entitled to the world to come (we know, we were also surprised that they could keep it to five opinions, very un-Jewish of them), those being:

  • From conception
  • From birth
  • From circumcision
  • Beginning with the ability to speak
  • Beginning with the ability to say the word “amen”

Curiously, and through the magic of Google, it seems that the final category – the ability to say amen appears elsewhere, e.g., tying in with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, of all things. Following the scene in which Macbeth kills King Duncan (Act 2, scene 2), he later recounts the scene for Lady Macbeth. As he was leaving the King’s bedchamber, Macbeth heard someone in another room laugh in his sleep (why laughter?), and someone else call out “Murder!” Both sleepers then awoke, prayed and said “amen”, and then settled down to sleep again. Meanwhile, Macbeth was frozen in his tracks outside their door, and recalled that he tried to respond in kind, but the word “amen” remained stuck in his throat.

According to one commentator, in addition to confirming his guilt, the inability to say the word amen “also shows that Macbeth still retains his sense of honor. His shame at not being able to say “amen” is actually a relief as opposed to him being able to shamelessly say the sacred word after committing a murder. “Hands,” which are covered with blood. Even so, according to Talmud and 5 rabbis, clearly no world to come for Macbeth.

Finally, leave it again to Aviva Zornberg and her take on our current verses in The Beginning of Desire, in which she equates laughter between Abraham and Sarah with the unspoken bond and communication that can exist between twins.

In both situations, regarding the “pseudo-language” that exists between twins, and between Abraham and Sarah, she concludes that “the words are incidental, silence is the essence… this is a language of diffusiveness, radiating nothing, the concentration of everything that was most private and secret in us”.

She continues “the birth of Isaac (attended by multiple births and healings in the world, according to Rashi) is an outrageous flouting of law and necessity, of common wisdom and stoic, philosophical acceptance. The reaction, the explosion of laughter, may run a long gamut (from mockery to joy, as Ramban puts it) but the very fact of laughter places man firmly, absurdly, at the center of his world.”

Similar, she suggests, to the unspoken bond found in sharing a good meal together (citing the classic film, Babette’s Feast) “Abraham and Sarah know of this laughter … like the se’udah, the food of the feast, laughter is a mode of communion. “

Zornberg concludes that “Abraham and Sarah, by inviting laughter to their table, share in it and modulate it. .. it is a fully human affirmation of affinity… In the relationship with their peers, it enacts the oral potential that Ramban writes of, in his [earlier] comment on Sarah’s solitary laughter of denial ‘And Sarah laughed to herself [18:12]; For the laughter of joy is from the mouth – Our mouths shall be filled with laughter’ [Psalms 126:2] – but inward laughter cannot be said to be joyful’.”

On that joyful note, our study group will be off until early January, in view of travel and other plans. If time and editors permit, we might splice in a post or two from previous study group sessions.

In the meantime, may you have a good Hanukah, and a safe and happy secular new year, and with that we say –

Amen. Or as Macbeth would say …….. ummm.

(Photo: Roly mo)