from the heart of jerusalem

Laughing in joy and in pain: What’s different?


Go to a Yemenite Jewish wedding or Bar Mitzvah and you will hear the women shouting the yelilot traditionally “sung” at all celebrations. I still recall when being called to the Torah for the first time at the Kotel, at my Bar Mitzvah, some of the Yemenite women standing on a bench looking over the divider let loose with blood-curdling sounds — cries of joy — nearly knocking my mother off the bench!

Nearly ten years later, at the military funeral of one of my men killed in a Jordanian border ambush, I heard the same blood-curdling sounds, only this time they were cries of anguish. These communities have the custom to let loose these powerful, almost guttural sounds, at occasions of both great joy as well as great sorrow, perhaps because often the line between joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, is so thin as to be almost indistinguishable. And this is true as well for laughter.

At the festive meal following a brit milah, an older gentleman began to speak. I anticipated that this grandfather or great uncle, whom I had seen holding the baby and hugging the new father earlier on, would share some thoughts of Torah, or perhaps some reminiscences of the family. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when this elderly fellow began what turned out to be a standup comedy routine! Even more surprising was that none of his jokes were even remotely funny, and yet nearly everyone else was laughing themselves silly! I wondered whether I was missing some inside jokes, when he finally calmed everyone down and began to speak.

“Some of you may wonder why, here at a brit, all that interests me is making you laugh. So let me share a story to put this in perspective.

“Before the war, we lived in Frankfurt, Germany. Our family had lived there for generations, and included many great rabbis and community leaders, and our family name was greatly respected and admired. I never recall anything but the utmost respect that was accorded to both my family and me — certainly no one ever laughed at us, or ridiculed us, until the Nazis came to power.

“One day I was stopped by a few German officers out for some fun. They forced me to get down on all fours and howl like a dog, and then to hop and jump while another Jew, caught like me, was forced to accompany my ‘dance’ with a song. While this was going on, a crowd gathered, and the laughter of these Germans filled the street.

“They sent a boy to the barber to fetch a pair of scissors, and they began to cut off my beard, all the while laughing and pointing and enjoying themselves. In those days, only Jews who had less of a relationship with Jewish tradition that had shaved their beards; we however, were a traditional family, and would never have considered such a thing, so the thought of being publicly humiliated by walking around without a beard was something that filled with me with more pain than the actual experience of having my beard cut off. “And, to make matters worse, they did not cut off my entire beard, but only half of it, and told me that if I cut off the other half of my beard, they would do unspeakable things to my family.

“For nearly a week, I lived in terror as we desperately searched for a way to escape, and eventually we succeeded in getting away from Germany, and eventually out of Europe. But the laughter and the catcalls that I experienced that week will stay with me forever.

“So today, with the Germans gone, and my family here surrounding me, and a new baby having just arrived, I want everyone here to smile with me, because this baby gives me again the opportunity to have the last laugh; after all these years, I finally have the chance I did not have then: to laugh back.

What is laughter all about? This week’s parsha, Vayera, seems to introduce us to the challenges of misplaced laughter.

Hashem, by way of three angels, tells Avraham that in a year’s time, his wife Sarah will give birth to a baby boy. “And he said, I will surely return to you this time next year, by which time your wife, Sarah, will give birth to a (baby) boy; and Sarah was listening behind the entrance to the tent.

“And Avraham and Sarah were old, and well on in years, and Sarah had ceased having her ‘women’s ways’ (periods). And Sarah laughed to herself, saying: Now I am worn out … and my husband is old!

“And G-d said to Avraham: Why did Sarah laugh and say: ‘Can I really give birth (to a child), when I am so old?’ Is anything too difficult for G-d? At the designated time, I will return, and Sarah will have a son.

“And Sarah was afraid (in awe?), and denied it, saying, ‘I did not laugh.’ And he said, ‘you did laugh’.” (Bereishit 18:10-15)

What did Sarah do here that was so inappropriate as to require the intervention of no less than G-d Himself? Was it so terrible that Sarah was in doubt, or at least surprised by this sudden revelation? Wouldn’t any woman who found out she was about to give birth at the age of 90, long after her body’s biological clock had stopped functioning, be incredulous at the prospect? Why was it so terrible that she laughed?

Even more challenging is the fact that Sarah was not told of this impending birth directly as was Abraham, but had to overhear the news that was being told to her husband. Add to this Sarah’s reaction to G-d’s accusation: she actually denies laughing! How could anyone, much less a woman of Sarah’s stature, deny that which Hashem says is true? Obviously G-d would know what is in your heart, as well as your mind.

What was going through Sarah’s mind when she laughed? It would seem, especially from verse 14, that Sarah was having a hard time accepting that she, a ninety-year-old woman, could give birth. But how could Sarah, viewed in Jewish tradition as a prophetess, doubt that G-d could do anything?

Even stranger is the explanation as to why Sarah denies her laughter: “Ki’ Yare’ah” (for she was … afraid). While most people translate “yare’ah” as “she was afraid,” the truth is that yir’ah is closer to a sense of awe of G-d than a fear of Him. Thus, Yirat Sha’mayim is less fear of heaven that an awe of heaven. Which brings us back to our story: How could the awe of seeing Hashem in everything be the source of Sarah’s seeming disbelief? And why was this disbelief, which would seem to be perfectly in order, warrant Hashem’s intervention?

Lastly, and strangest of all, is the fact that Sarah is not the only one guilty of laughter here: Abraham too, when first informed of the imminent birth of a son, laughs in disbelief. After Abraham is circumcised, Sarai is re-named Sarah, and G-d tells him:

“And I will bless her (Sarah) and give you a son from her as well … and she will be a mother of nations, and kings of nations will come from her. And Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart: ‘will a child be born to a 100 year old (man)? And will Sarah, who is 90 years old, give birth’? And Abraham said to G-d: would that Yishmael should live before you! And G-d said:’ But Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you will call him ‘Yitzchak’.” (Bereishit 17:16-19)

Why was Avraham’s laughter fine, while Sarah’s seems to have been problematic? Rashi, though not addressing this problem directly, notes that Onkelos, in his Aramaic translation form the period of the Mishnah, translates these two instances of laughter differently:

In the case of Avraham’s laughter (17:17), Onkelos translates Va’Yitzchak (and he laughed) as Va’Chadey, from the root Chedvah, which Rashi explains means simchah, or joy. However, when Sarah laughs (18:12), he translates Va’Titzchak as Ve’Chaychat, which Rashi explains means laughter.

Note also that Abraham laughs, and then says to himself: ‘will a hundred year old man and his ninety year old wife give birth?’

Sarah, however, laughs to herself. So it seems that Abraham’s laughter is more public, and Sarah’s is more private.

And Rashi suggests that Abraham is experiencing pure joy, having naturally assumed G-d’s word is inevitable, whilst Sarah seems to be experiencing some initial reaction of doubt, perhaps almost afraid to believe that what her ears have heard can actually be true.

But can it be that Sarah, whose level of prophecy is described as greater than that of Avraham, doubted G-d’s ability to produce such a miracle, and, when confronted by no less than G-d, actually denies it? Equally strange, once she is told: “No, you laughed”, Sarah is at once silent and accepting? What is this dialogue all about, and what is really going on here?

Rav Avigdor Nevehnsahl, in his Sichot Le’Rosh HaShanah, suggests that Sarah denies laughing, because she had no idea that she actually did laugh. Thus, only when Hashem tells her that she did actually laugh does she silently accept this and begin her struggle to understand what it means.

Sometimes, there are character flaws that are so deeply hidden inside of us as to be barely discernible. Sarah’s disbelief is so miniscule as to be hidden deep inside to such a degree that even she did not realize she had laughed. Experiencing a disbelief of such mild proportions, Sarah, when questioned, even by G-d, naturally responds that she did not laugh, because in her heart she really did not laugh.

But G-d knows differently. However mild this doubt, hidden deep inside Sarah was the bare beginnings of a character flaw which, if allowed to flourish, might easily become first doubt, then cynicism, and ultimately denial of all the principles on which this new nation of Abraham and Sarah was meant to be founded.

The birth of Yitzchak is the beginning of the birth of the Jewish people — who will be carried through the most challenging experiences in human history by tremendous faith, faith in the future, faith that the day will come when we will all laugh together. Perhaps this is why this child will be named Yitzchak, meaning “he will laugh.”

Perhaps this is the difference between Abraham and Sarah: the shock of gratitude, which leads to joy, as opposed to the shock of disbelief which leads to doubt. 

In the end, laughter is about the unexpected. That, in fact, is how comedians earn their living, by leading us down a story line with a completely unexpected punch line. And this is the meaning of the psalm we sing on Shabbat and festivals introducing the Birkat HaMazon: “Az Yimaleh’ S’chok Pinu (Then will our mouths be filled with laughter).”

We will laugh at the coming of redemption, precisely because it will be so unexpected. 

If you would have told a Jew, huddling in the cold roll call of an Auschwitz morning in 1943, that five years later he would be dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv, in the new State of Israel, he would have said you were mad; who could have expected the miracle that was the birth of the State of Israel? 

In the end, the mark of our relationship with G-d is how we ultimately laugh. If I truly can accept that Hashem is the source of reality, then anything can happen, and nothing is really a surprise.

Caught in the world of Sodom, and having just experienced the evil of Egypt, deep inside Sarah is growing the kernel of the question, of whether we can ever really make the world a better place. Deep inside lies hidden the laughter of the impossibility of the dream that is Avraham. And so G-d tells Sarah to let it go, because if I have a relationship with my creator, then all things are possible, and one day, somewhere way off in the future, the world of Sodom will ultimately be destroyed, and we will laugh again.

We are living in such a time; when terrorism seems to flourish and children idolize suicide bombers. We wonder whether the dream of a world of peace will ever come.

And yet, imagine telling our great grandparents in the ghettoes of Warsaw or Kovno, that they would one day have to endure bombings in a modern Jewish State with a Jewish Army, where the spoken language is Hebrew, and the star of David is no longer yellow but blue on the white flag of Israel, which flies over the first national Jewish Government in Israel in 2,000 years.

It’s all about how we laugh. May Hashem bless us all, soon, to have only wonderful things to laugh about, all of us, together.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.