As we prepare for the Days of Awe, it is easy to focus on tears and fears and not the joy that the holiday also invites. One of our central characters, Isaac, is named precisely for the experience of laughter. The first child born Jewish was named for happiness. Isaac was a much-awaited child, the product of much anguish. And his breathless fate on Mount Moriah that we read on Rosh Hashanah was also a time of anguish. And yet, he is still named for joy, perhaps because he was a source of relief and a sign that impossible things can be possible: an important message as we face any new year.
Both Abraham and Sarah laughed when they heard the good news. It seems, however, that just like there are different kinds of tears, there are different kinds of laughter. In Genesis 18, when the angels tell Abraham that he will have a son, Sarah overhears and laughs. This was the laughter of disbelief, and it was regarded as a sign of disrespect towards God. “So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’”
God was angry that this magnanimous gift was snubbed. “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” There is laughter of relief and laughter of joy and laughter of skepticism. Sarah’s laughter fell into the last category. “Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, ‘I did not laugh.’ But he said, ‘Yes, you did laugh.’” Arguing with God is usually not a good idea when you’re not telling the truth. We’ve all had Sarah moments when we laughed but denied it later because laughter was inappropriate to the moment.
Pianist and singer Regina Spektor came to America from Russia when she was 9. She discovered her voice on a sponsored trip to Israel for gifted Jewish teenagers. The rest is history. Her song “Laugh With” posits that God is actually funny, but that at key times of life drama, no one laughs at God:
No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God
When they’re starving or freezing or so very poor
But God is responsible for joy as well, and people who embrace joy also bring God into the world. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav discusses suffering and how one suffering person holds it in, unable to share with others the extent of his pain. But then sometimes you meet someone with a laughing face. That face is powerful according to Rabbi Nahman because such a person can revive others with his joy. And this, Rabbi Nahman concludes, is a very great act of kindness: “To revive a man is no slight thing.” They say that laughter is the best medicine but to believe it you must believe that laughter is a form of medicine—that it is an act of healing and has redemptive powers. Jerry Seinfeld said, “The greatest Jewish tradition is to laugh. The cornerstone of Jewish survival has always been to find the humor in life and in ourselves.”
Spektor ends her song with the words, “We’re all laughing with God.” Sarah said that people will laugh with her when they hear the news. We laugh with God about the immensity of our blessings. Spiritual joy is not minimizing possibility but enhancing it and believing that good things—maybe even the impossible stuff of dreams—may be ours to actualize. It happened before. It will happen again. Maybe even this year.
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of “In the Narrow Places” (OU Press/Maggid); “Inspired Jewish Leadership,” a National Jewish Book Award finalist; “Spiritual Boredom”; and “Confronting Scandal.”