Thursday, October 24, 2013

“Giving up the Art of Laughter?”: Isaac, After the Akeidah

George Segal, Avraham offering his son Isaac, 1973
After the Akeidah. Is there such a thing? “No poetry after Auschwitz,” said Adorno - would Isaac agree?
This week’s Torah portion focuses on the finding of a wife for Isaac, but he is barely mentioned in the process, inviting us to consider Isaac’s life after the Akeidah.
The truth is that Isaac is the blandest of the Patriarchs. The Biblical spotlight barely focuses on him. He seems to always play the supporting cast to his father/wife/neighbors/twin sons. Someone else is sent to find him a wife, he spends his life digging his father’s wells only to have them blocked or stolen by others, and finally gets tricked by his son in his old age.  Perhaps Adorno is right, and Issac’s life is to be understood as the poetry-less life of a survivor of patricide (interestingly, his son Jacob describes God as “the God of Avraham and the Fear of Isaac” Gen 31:42).
Elie Wiesel however presents a different take, focusing on the things which we might take for granted about Isaac:
 Isaac survived. He had no choice. He had to make something of his memories, his experience, in order to force us to hope. Isaac represents defiance. He defied death. Logically, he should have pursued oblivion. Instead he settled on his land, married, had children, refusing to let fate turn him into a bitter man.
He felt neither hatred nor anger toward his contemporaries who did not share his experience. On the contrary, he liked them and showed concern for their well-being. After Moriah, he devoted his life and his right to immortality to the defense of his people. He will be entitled to say anything he likes to God, ask anything of Him.
Because he suffered? No. Suffering confers no privileges. Rather Isaac knew how to transform his suffering into prayer and love rather than into rancor and malediction. This is what gives him rights and powers no other man possesses.
And as the first survivor, he had to teach us, the future survivors of Jewish history, that it is possible to suffer and despair an entire lifetime and still not give up the art of laughter.  (Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God.  pg 92)

Isaac’s calling, according to Wiesel’s auto-biographical projection, is in transforming the most traumatic moment in his life into a resource for his community. He is to become an advocate on behalf of those who suffer in silence. Wiesel’s point highlights one of the rare moments in which Isaac takes agency. When Rebecca is barren, he prays on her behalf, turning “his suffering into prayer and love rather than into rancor and malediction”:
And Isaac entreated God in presence of his wife, because she was barren;
and God let Himself be entreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived. (Gen 25:21)
וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַיי לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא; וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יי, וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ.
(בראשית כה:כא)

Isaac’s behavior puts his heroic father to shame. How come Avraham, in all those years of Sarah’s barrenness, never “entreated God in presence of his wife”? Returning to Wiesel’s words above, I wonder if this is in some way connected to the “Art of Laughter”, and the connection between knowing how to pray and knowing how to laugh. Prayer is indeed laughable, in the deepest sense. Both come across as the most primal of human responses, irrational and yet totally real. They are both actions that embody full presence-in-the-moment, seemingly not representing action, but actually offering a third way. Laughter and Prayer break the evolutionary psychologist’s dichotomy of “Fight or Flight”. Avraham knew how to fight, and he know how to run. But, perhaps, he didn’t know how to laugh.

Shabbat Shalom,

P.S. Yehuda Amichai completely disagrees with Elie Wiesel in this poem:

Avraham had three sons, not just two
Avraham had three sons: Yishmael Yitzchak and Yivkeh.
No one has ever heard of Yivkeh, for he was the youngest
And the most beloved, who was sacrificed on Har Hamoriah.
Yishmael was saved by his mother, Hagar; Yitzchak saved by the angel.
But Yivkeh was not saved by anyone. When he was young,
His father would call him, in love, Yivkeh, Yivk, little Yevk
My sweetie. But he sacrificed him in the Akedah.
And in the Torah it says a ram, but it was Yivkeh.
Yishmael never again heard about God, the rest of his life.
Yitzchak never again laughed, the rest of his life.
And Sarah only laughed once, and never again.
Avraham had three sons,
Yishma, Yitzchak, Yivkeh
Yishmael, Yitzchakel, Yivke-el.
Yehuda Amichai