For the week of October 27, 2018 / 18 Heshvan 5779
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 18:1-22:24
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 4:1-37
Download Audio [Right click link to download]
God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me. (Bereshit/Genesis 21:6)
Last spring a friend of mine was researching how best to conduct a Passover Seder for his Christian community. He came upon the suggestion that laughter was appropriate in such a gathering. He wrote me because some were concerned that including levity may undermine the Seder’s seriousness. My thoughts immediately went back to one of the first times I did a Seder for a Christian group. During the meal time, one of the leaders said to me: “I didn’t think this was going to be fun!” “Not fun?” I reacted. How could it not be fun? We’re celebrating our deliverance from Egypt!” Reflecting further upon the question, I thought about how the Jewish experience is such a fascinating combination of joy and sorrow. It isn’t simply that our history has had some good times and bad times. It’s that the good and the bad have been intermingled. Time and time again when it appears that darkness is about to overwhelm us forever, the tables surprisingly, even miraculously, turn, and light breaks through. Not only is the threat abated, but the result is often better than the original condition.
In literary terms this is called irony. It’s the story of the bad guy digging a pit only to fall into it himself, while his unsuspecting victim helps himself to the now abandoned lunch. While some may feel bad for the bad guy, the sudden act of justice at his own hand, creates an overwhelming emotional response of delight that often exhibits itself through laughter.
Passover isn’t the only holiday that features irony, of course. At Purim, we commemorate Haman’s parading Mordechai through the Persian capital before being hanged from the very gallows he prepared for him. At Hanukkah, we remember the victory of the small Maccabean army over the great assimilating powers of their day. Besides these formal celebrations, let’s not forget Joseph’s being sold into slavery by his brothers being his circuitous route to the Egyptian palace; the mercenary and false prophet Balaam opening his mouth to curse Israel but pronouncing nothing but blessing instead; the impenetrable walls of Jericho falling down in response to a Jewish parade complete with the sounds of shouting and shofars (English; ram’s horns); scaredy-cat Gideon leading Israel in victory against the oppressive Midianites; and the modern State of Israel emerging from the ashes of the Holocaust.
Irony provokes laughter, but I wouldn’t call most of these stories funny. Each and every one of these were difficult and dangerous. They include great suffering and loss. But they didn’t end that way. While in no way diminishing great hardships, there was reason to celebrate eventually. What I believe my friend was struggling with in his Passover research was a tendency by some that either the event should be serious or fun, but not both. However, life is both. Especially a life that is wrapped up in the God of the Bible, the God of Israel.
Sarah, Abraham’s wife, understood this. After going childless for almost her entire life and being far beyond her childbearing years, she finally had a son. That is remarkable on its own and more than enough reason to celebrate, but this is not any son. Sarah’s son is the heir to the greatest of all God’s promises. For through him will “all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Bereshit/Genesis 26:4). Through his descendants, evil and its deadly fruit would be destroyed forever. God’s plans and purposes rested on this child, yet the tension and turmoil leading up to his birth made the delight of his arrival so great that he would be forever marked by his name, Yitzhak, which is derived from the Hebrew word for “laughter.”
The ironic complexity of Jewish history reflects the reality of the universe in which we live. Life is difficult and painful and yet, when we are in relationship with the Master of this universe, we can catch the delightfulness, even the humor, of life’s goings on. This is why the New Covenant letter of James (actually Ya’acov or Jacob, reminiscent of the son of Isaac), begins with the encouragement to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). The Greek word for “joy” here, “chara,” is no disconnected, quasi-spiritual, unemotional sense of contentment. It is full-out celebratory happiness.
Are we really to be that happy in the face of “trials of various kinds”? We’re not talking the “coffee drive-through is busy” type of trial here. It’s the painful kind of threats, unjust loss of employment, family betrayal, beatings, imprisonment, and death. I have a hard-enough time sustaining any semblance of a good mood during times of minimal discomfort. But pure joy? Celebratory happiness? Laughter perhaps?
James understood the irony of life. He not only knew the ancient stories of his people, but also the most ironic of all: The one where Death thought it could hold the Messiah in its grip, only to be defeated once and for all, thus fulfilling the laughter child’s destiny. Maybe James knew that not only would God’s goodness forever have the upper hand in the lives of Yeshua’s followers, but even great trials would be leveraged by God for our good. Realizing this doesn’t belittle the seriousness of our hardships, though if we think about it long enough, it might give us a good laugh.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version