Yitzchak was the very first baby, all of eight days old, to have a brit mila. The book of Bereishit shares with us parts of his story. A complex life as a ben zekunim, including a tough older brother named Yishmael, a spirited step-mom Hagar, a sacrificial actor in his father’s altering life-test, a long single life, and marital and economic intimidation.
According to tradition, one’s name is aligned with one’s nature. But how do we contemplate the aspects of someone named Yitzchak, looking back to the first Yitzchak, our patriarch Yitzchak Avinu? There is no denying the connection between tzechok (laughter) and the name Yitzchak. It was stressed by the Almighty, no less. But why was he named Yitzchak? Clearly Yitzchak Avinu did not sail though his life without worries on song and dance.
Our classic commentaries struggle to explain, each in a different way, the laughter recorded in Sefer Bereishit in relation to Avraham, Sarah, and Yishmael. The same terminology “tzechok” in different manifestations with differing, and even unexpected and dramatic, results. Like ephemeral laughter, as is the standard translation of this word, “tzechok” can hold multiple meanings and layers – perhaps even concurrently.
Rav Ashkenazi Manitou explains that Torat Chayim, a living Torah, means a Torah that contains G-d’s reflections on mankind and their behavior. which is recorded as a type of spiritual Ancestry.com for us to understand our spiritual selves better through learning about our roots. Such a Torah also contains insights to illuminate and activate a positive effect upon our lives. The Torah is supposed to have a living, direct impact upon us and the future, not merely be a record of our history.
Why wasn’t Avraham criticized for laughing? Why did Sara laugh only in her heart, to herself? How was this laughter significant enough for G-d to tell Avraham about it (sounds like a type of tale-bearing based upon our understanding)? What was Sara scared about? Why did she deny having laughed? Why is this incident so important that the Torah recorded it, and in this selective way, and what kind of lessons can we learn from it?
Commentators provide us with a wealth of different approaches to answer some of these questions. As they can conflict with each other, it is important to find those that speak best to our own perspectives, and to appreciate and integrate them into a better understanding of our own challenges and to improve our own lives and approaches.
My father, a”h, Dr. Ivan Mauer – whose Hebrew name was Yitzchak – challenges me further to reach for such insights. How could parents providing such a name know that their son would need it to survive life’s trials? And yet, there is a belief that parents have a form of divine guidance and inspiration upon naming their child, with the hope that the name will assist him or her best in life.
While the kabbalistic tradition crowns Yitzchak with the nature of bravery and strength (gevurah), perhaps the name Yitzchak also includes the positivity implicit in not taking oneself too seriously to avoid heaviness of personality and depression, to retain through all challenges a light touch and a happy heart. This may hold a great secret for humanity – illuminating a type of path to navigate through hardships and traumas. Yitzchak had that fortitude, as was his nature.
My older sister shared with me a story that she recently heard about our father, who was a ben zekunim like Yitzchak Avinu. A number of years prior to having a stroke, my father asked to have posted on a firm’s bulletin board the following announcement: Anyone who has health issues but no medical insurance should please be in touch with him directly for consultation and possible treatment. He was strong-minded and determined, but also had a light touch that put patients at ease.
We should allow the stories in Sefer Bereishit, as well as those of our ancestors, to inspire our personal lives, and thereby activate a literal living Torah.
May the memory of Yitzchak ben Zvi and Leah be a blessing.