The Ambivalence of the Biblical Attitude toward Laughter

Jewish history has not always been characterized by laughter, but in Genesis it evokes the freedom and joy of a life in partnership with God.

Last week’s Torah reading of Lekh-L’kha (Genesis 12-17) tells the story of the birth of Abraham’s elder son Ishmael. By contrast, this week’s reading of Vayera (Genesis 18-22) has at its center the birth of his younger son Isaac. I say “by contrast” because, from the very start, beginning with the circumstances of their birth and their respective names, the text makes the difference between the two boys especially stark. Nor are these differences just a matter of literary curiosity; rather, they present divergent ways of relating to God.

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The Birthday of the World

An American Jew’s experience of the Jewish holidays is inextricably linked to the American calendar, to regional weather patterns and to the distinct geographies of his or her surroundings. It’s hard for me to imagine the period of Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot without thinking of the onset of autumn, of leaves that are beginning to change colors, cool evenings and fall harvest vegetables. The fall carries with it its own rich poetic symbolism – a yellow leaf can signify the fall from Eden, decisions that can’t be undone, or the flourishing of love in face of the inevitability of death. So what does this all have to do with the Jewish New Year? Not much if you live in a climate where autumn is not as pronounced. Yet for an American Jewish writer like Emma Lazarus, the grandeur of the the Jewish New Year is inextricably linked to its seasonal setting:

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