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Subject: Torah: Parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18), Comm
Date: Mon, 30 Nov 1998 15:48:20 -0800
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Torah: Parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18), Commentary on the
Weekly Torah Reading for 24 Cheshvan, 5759 (November 13, 1998)
by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
EFRAT, ISRAEL, Yom Shishi (Sixth Day - "Friday"), 24 Cheshvan, 5759
(November 13, 1998), Root & Branch: Abraham and Jacob-Israel, Isaac's
father and son respectively, are clearly developed and fully described
Biblical personalities, whom the Biblical reader comes to know as husbands,
parents and leaders.
But with regard to Isaac, the Torah seems far less generous in its
delineation of his character and motivations. The major events of his life
- the "binding", his marriage, and his bestowal of the blessings to the
next generation - seem to happen to him rather than their having been
initiated by him. Even the actions he does take - his going down to Egypt
during a famine, and his conflict with his neighbors over the
ownership of certain wells - are almost a replay of what Abraham his father
did before him.
Isaac, the unique individual, eludes our ability to analyze him, seems
hidden behind a veil of silence and growing blindness. On one level,
Isaac may be seen as the dutiful son, the carrier of the tradition, the
link in the chain - a critical function indeed fundamental to the
continuity of the Abrahamic vision, and a most necessary model for the rank
and file of his descendants. But I believe there is one complementary and
fundamental dimension - and it is reflected in his name!
After all, Isaac alone among the patriarchs possesses a name that does not
undergo some sort of transformation. Abram's name is changed to Abraham,
'Av Hamon Goyim' [Genesis 17:5], father of a multitude of nations. Jacob,
after wrestling with the anonymous being at the side of the Jabbok River,
receives a new name entirely --Yisrael, he will overcome.
But Isaac is born Yitzhak, he is initially named not by his parents but by
G-d, and he dies Yitzhak.
Obviously, "Yitzhak" the name is linked in some way to the root word for
laughter (zchok); a characteristic and activity which seems strangely
incongruous with the personality of Isaac as the Torah portrays him. He
comes by the name as a result of his father Abraham's laughter, when -
already an old man - living with a woman who has
long ceased to menstruate - he hears from G-d that he and Sarah will indeed
parent a son, the fruit of their seed and womb.
"Then Abraham fell upon his face and laughed (vayitzchak), and said in his
heart: Shall a child be born unto him who is a hundred years old? And
who is ninety years old give birth?" [Genesis 17:17]
G-d, not at all critical of Abraham's response, confirms His promise: "And
G-d said, 'Indeed, Sarah, your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall
call his name Yitzchak. And I will establish my covenant with him for a
covenant forever, and with his seed after him.'" [Genesis 17:19]
A striking parallel occurs with Sarah's response - she is also involved in
"tzchok" - laughter - but the Almighty takes less kindly to her reaction.
It is the third day after Abraham's circumcision, and despite the heat of
the day and his own great pain, when three wandering strangers are sighted
in the distance, Abraham runs to greet them and invite them into his home
for food and rest.
The Bible informs us that they are angels, disguised as poor travelers, who
have been sent to perform three tasks, one of which is to bring good
tidings to Abraham: "...Lo, Sarah your wife shall have a son. And Sarah
heard it in the entrance of the
tent...Now Abraham and Sarah were advanced in days, the manner of women had
ceased with Sarah. Therefore Sarah laughed (vatizchak) within herself,
saying, 'After I am withered, shall I have delight?'" [Genesis 18:10-12]
The text goes on to record how Sarah's laugh is heard by G-d, who seems to
make a critical inquiry as to the reason for her laughter. Sarah denies
it, "I laughed not (lo tzachakti)," she says. But G-d insists, "You did
laugh (tzachakt)." Here, in the context of Sarah, the root word for
'laughter' appears four times, and Yitzchak hasn't even been born.
When Sarah does gives birth, and the son is named Yitzhak, Sarah declares:
"..and G-d has made me a person to be laughed (tzchok) at; all who hear it
will laugh at me." [Genesis 21:6]
We're still not through with this word, for it crops up again as the major
distinction between half-brothers Yishmael and Yitzhak and the reason for
their necessary separation - albeit in different tense forms: "And Sarah
saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born unto Abraham, mocking
(metzahek) - and the metzahek cannot live with and influence Yitzhak."
[Genesis 21:9, 10]
Rashi even goes so far as to cite the midrashic definition of metzahek as
referring to idolatry, sexual licentiousness, and murder.
Apparently, Yitzhak's name reverberates beyond his own social security
card, extending to the lives of people who are closest to him both before
and after his birth. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that
"laughter-tzhok" can have either positive or negative connotations,
depending upon the context. Indeed, the first time Abraham hears of
Yitzhak's impending birth and laughs, Targum Onkelos translates
laughter as "v'hadi", which means true rejoicing (hedvah).
However, in the very next chapter when Sarah laughs upon hearing the same
special news, Targum translates the word 'laughter' as 'gehakh' which is a
cynical, sneering laughter, the exact opposite of Abraham's 'hadi'. From
the perspective of these different translations, we can understand why the
Almighty was supportive of Abraham's
laughter - and used it as the basis for Yitzhak's name - but was critical
of Sarah's laughter.
However there still remains one more textual mystery to solve before we can
completely understand the significance of the name Yitzhak and Abraham's
laughter. Immediately following the traumatic incident of the 'Akedah'
(binding), we read: "So Abraham returned unto his lads. And they rose and
went together to Beer-sheva; and Abraham
abode at Beer-sheva." [Genesis 22:19]
Notably absent is any reference to Yitzhak. After all, they both underwent
the awesomely difficult and problematic "test," with the Bible informing us
twice in that very same passage. "And the two of them walked together."
Where was Isaac
now that it was all over?
Rabbi Mordechai Elon of Jerusalem recently pointed out an interpretation in
the Holy Zohar on the very beginning of Parashat Noah which suggests that,
following the akedah, although Yitzhak may have still physically walked the
landscape of Israel, nevertheless his real essence was in the other world,
the Divine ethereal world of the spirit, the world to come. Targum Yonatan
maintains that Yitzhak picked himself up from Mt. Moriah and went to study
Torah in the Yeshiva of Shem [Genesis 22:19].
>From a certain perspective, both interpretations are saying the same thing:
Yitzhak did not live in the here-and-now present world of the physical; he
yearned for and succeeded in cleaving to the eternal world of the spirit,
the perfected world of Torah, the kingship of G-d to come.
Hence it's no surprise that his destined wife Rebecca first encounters her
husband-to-be as he emerges from the fields where he had been engaged in
prayer and meditation with the Divine. As we mentioned last week, Yitzhak
returns again and again to Beer-Lahai-Roi since this is where G-d had
revealed Himself previously to Yishmael; Yitzhak is constantly seeking
Divine meetings, constantly striving to make contact with eternity.
Yitzhak means he will rejoice; true joy and happiness only comes to those
who get their sights on the future, who understand that the present is only
illusory and transitory (and therefore whose present activities are barely
recorded), who dedicate themselves to a future, better world based on the
past traditions and truths of our eternal Torah. Abraham glimpsed this
future when G-d promised him a son and heir, and so his laughter was the
expression of the true rejoicing which gave Yitzhak his name and vocation.
Sarah, at least according to Targum, found it difficult at the moment of
the angel's prophecy to believe that an old woman could experience the
physical pleasures of
sexual rejuvenation - and so her laughter was cynical and sarcastic,
derided by G-d. Yishmael, the seeker after immediate physical
gratification, is capable of committing every and any act of immorality.
He cannot live with Yitzhak, seeker of eternity, guardian of Jewish future
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin