In VaYera,this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the destruction of Sodom, expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael, and the binding and almost sacrifice of Yitzhak. In light of all of these “upbeat” things, it seemed only fitting to share some thoughts on the nature of humor within the Jewish tradition.
Obviously, it is Yitzhak, the person whose name means laughter in the Torah, himself who begs the question of comedy. When Sarah hears the news that she will have a child she laughs or fears that she will be laughed at for having a child at such an old age. While Avram is renamed Avraham because he will be the father of many nations, with the naming of Yitzhak, we ask is God making a joke? And more importantly does Yitzhak get it?
In the words of E. B. White, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” If Yitzhak’s life started as a joke, we see in the trial of the Akeyda (his binding) that he is literally and figuratively put under the knife. If this is a joke, it is not funny.
In the words of Woody Allen, “Comedy is tragedy plus time”. Bad things are funny the further they are from my backyard. In the case of Yitzhak comedy plus time turns into a tragedy. The Torah records no interactions with his father after the Akeyda and Yitzhak’s interactions with his sons leave a lot to be desired. It seems that with the length of time the joke is on him.
In the context of Yitzhak’s life it is interesting to look at the parallel of the nature of comedy to the nature of love. Just as the Torah introduced us to laughter with his birth, we are introduced to love when Yitzhak meets Rebecca. Just as a joke explained and analyzed, this love seems to fall apart over time. Yitzhak and Rebecca are not very communicative, there is a lot of passive aggressive behavior in their relationship, and they are not able to keep their family together. Although it is love at first sight, ultimately their relationship is dysfunctional.
In his book on psychotherapy, Dr. Irvin D. Yalom writes, “I do not like to work with patients who are in love. Perhaps it is because of envy- I, too, crave enchantment. Perhaps it is because love and psychotherapy are fundamentally incompatible. The good therapist fights darkness and seeks illumination, while romantic love is sustained by mystery and crumbles upon inspection. I hate to be love’s executioner.” Love like laughter does not survive explanation or analysis. They both represent a pre- reflective visceral response in the moment. Just as Yitzhak is conceived out a deep knowing, laughter like love comes from deep response to the revelation of a hidden truth.
We are all striving to shine the light on the world around us while letting ourselves get lost in the feeling that only exists in the shadows. Who wants to be love’s executioner? Who likes to ruin a joke? But we know that the unexamined life is not worth living. We can all relate to the person of Yitzhak. We are all always insiders and outsiders to the joke of our own lives. We are called upon to live lives of eternal meaning and reflection while letting ourselves get lost in the moment. In that sense Yitzhak is truly the first born Jew. I guess the joke is on us.
This piece was inspired my Shalom Orzach