Posts Tagged 'Yitzhak'

A Laughing Nation: The Secret of Our Immortality

My son Yadid is in Israel for a gap year after High School. As part of Year Course, the program he is on, they will be traveling to Poland in a couple of weeks. In preparing him for this trip I shared with him a longer version of one of my favorite jokes. The joke goes:

An old Jew man dies and goes to Heaven. He asks if God wants to hear a Holocaust joke. God agrees and the man tells the joke. God says, “That wasn’t funny. It was offensive.” The Jew pauses and replies “I guess you had to be there.”

The profound nature of this joke is not just a challenge of theodicy, it is also an expression of our deep sense of group. We, the Jewish people are in the “in-group” and God is on the outside. What is it about our people? We make it normal to take the feeling of pain and transform it into humor if not actual joy.

I often think about this when I see a non-Jew experience a traditional Jewish wedding for the first time. More often than not, they are just blown away by the depth and layers of joy at the event. In response I point out the breaking of the glass. Everyone knows this is the sound of Jewish wedding, but few know the source.

Our breaking of the glass is meant as a fulfilment of the verse, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten; let my tongue stick to my palate if I do not mention you, if I do not raise Jerusalem above my highest joy” (Tehillim 137:5-6). So a wedding is one of those moments of “highest joy”, but we did not always live up to this idea. The Talmud relates that Mar, the son of Ravina, made a wedding for his son. When he saw that the rabbis “were becoming too joyful,” he took “a valuable cup worth four hundred zuz and broke it before them, and they became sad.” To demonstrate that this was not a silly idea, the Gemara immediately follows by telling us that “Rav Ashi made a wedding for his son and saw the Sages, were excessively joyous. He brought a cup of white glass and broke it before them, and they became sad”. (Brachot 30b-31a) The breaking of the glass is a reminder to keep the destuction of Jerusalem above this moment of “highest joy”.

Much harm and pain has befallen our people since we lost Jerusalem. We measure that collective pain out measure for measure with our collective joy. We take this moment to cry for the 6 million and they join us in dancing at our weddings. What a big wedding party? Now that is highest joy.

The speaks to the joy, but what about our sense of humor? I was thinking about this when reading Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. It is interesting in that much of the story allows us to focus on the perspective of Avraham, but what about Sarah?

Sarah left their home for a Promised Land only to find a famine. They carry on to Egypt where she is pimped out to Pharaoh. They finally leave heading back to Canaan. But this time Avraham has a handmaid. And insult to injury Hagar give her husband a son. At this point she is an old woman. Her years of giving birth to a child are long past and they are told that she will give birth to a son. This seems so absurd- it can only be understood as a cruel joke. There we read:

And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her. Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?”

Genesis 17:15-17

They do not get angry, alas they laugh. And just like that Yitzhak gets his name from laughter. “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Yitzhak, and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come.” ( Genesis 17:19) Alas the first person born of two Jewish parents was born from pain, suffering, and shame, but was known for laughter.

Now that is Jewish. It makes your think that our “everlasting covenant” itself is connected to our collective sense of humor. This reminds me of that famous quote by Mark Twain on the Jewish people. He wrote:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

Mark Twain ,September 1897

Our history is a sad and absurd. Looking back one could only choose to laugh or cry. The secret of our immortality is our choice to laugh again and again. We find humor in pain and transform it into joy. With each joke we reknit our experience of peoplehood. Together share the weight of sadness and glee of real joy. If you do not get it, well… You had to be there.

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Blind Taste Test

In Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, we read about Yakov’s deception and act of stealing the blessing from his brother Esav. This story starts off with a blind Yitzhak growing aware of his age. He calls Esav. There we read:

Now therefore take, I pray of you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die.’ ( Genesis 27: 3-4)

Rivka overhears this plan and tells Yakov to intervene and to follow her plan. There we read:

Go now to the flock, and fetch me from two good kids of the goats from there; and I will make them savory food for your father, such as he loves; and you shall bring it to your father, that he may eat, so that he may bless you before his death.’ ( Genesis 27: 9-10)

At the core of this deception is the issue of perception. Yitzhak is blind so he cannot see the food or who is bringing it.

This reminds me of the final chapter of Malcolm Gladwell‘s Blink. There he writes about how orchestras hold “blind” auditions where musicians literally play behind a screen. So-called expert judges are able to hear with “just their ears” rather than look first and, in that blink of an eye, make instant (often unfair) assumptions based on what they see. A tiny woman, for example, could never be a great French Horn player because she couldn’t possibly have the strength or lung capacity. Gladwell writes,“Until they listened to her with just their ears … they had no idea she was so good.”

This seems to be the case with Yitzhak as well. He says that he wants venison because it tastes savory, but in the end he gives the blessing to the child that brings him the goat meat instead. Until he tastes with his mouth and not with his eyes he did not realize what he truly really wanted. His blindness was like a screen, helping him blink and reveal the right savory taste. But why did he think he wanted Esav’s dish?

In last week’s Torah portion we read about Esav and Yakov as children . There we read:

And the boys grew; and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Now Yitzhak loved Esav, because he did eat of his venison; and Rivka loved Jacob. ( Genesis 25:27-28)

Yitzhak saw in Esav a virile masculine outdoorsy child. Yitzhak is drawn after the memories of Esav’s venison which blinds him to the gifts that Yakov has to offer. Ironically it is his actual blindness that helps him see. We are all blinded by our assumptions.

I was thinking about this when reading  of the Gur’s ban on soy products. According to a report in BaOlam Shel Haredim based on a HaMevasser report, Gur has now banned soy products like veggie hot dogs from its yeshivas due their Rabbis’ fears that the hormones in soy foods will cause the bodies of young teen students to become feminine in appearance and thereby cause their rabbis and older students to become sexually aroused seeing them. They are worried that soy will damage the spirituality of its yeshiva students by accelerating their sexual maturity. Doctors and scientists find no scientific evidence to support Gur’s decision to ban what is the cheapest – and, probably, the healthiest – protein available. They, like Yitzhak, seem to be blinded by their perception that venison is more masculine.

We all make assumptions that cloud our vision. It is sad to realize how we are overlooking the gifts of so many people by holding fast to these assumptions. You would think that we, the descendents of Yakov, would advocate to put up the screen so we could have a better sounding orchestra and more savory meal.


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