“Mann tracht un Gott lacht.” – “Man plans and God laughs.”
Many of us are familiar with this Yiddish maxim. And I’m sure we can all think of a situation in our lives – if not our entire lives – that didn’t turn out how we planned.
Perhaps especially this year. I thought about my own plans this week as I returned to North Carolina, where I celebrated the wedding of my dear friend with whom I moved there a year and half ago, when we left Israel thinking we just needed to find a place to stay for a few weeks before we could go back to our normal lives. Ha! How different this year turned out to be from my plan. I’m sure that is true for many of us, especially in this last year and a half, where our best-laid plans were often canceled, postponed, and generally thrown into chaos by external circumstances.
Laughter is a theme throughout Parashat Vayera. Sarah laughs, God laughs, and Yitzhak’s name itself means “laughter.” And the verse in which Sarah names her son Yitzhak, after giving birth at age 90, is of particular interest to me: In Genesis 21:6, Sarah says the following to explain why she named her son Yitzhak:
The JPS Tanakh translates this verse as: “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
However, the Hebrew lends itself to a much more ambiguous reading. Sarah may well be saying “God made a joke out of me; everyone who hears will laugh at/for me.”
These two different translations represent two different paradigms in the type of reaction we can have in the face of the absurd circumstances of our life, if not the absurdity of life itself.
Faced with unexpected and perhaps unwanted circumstances, we might respond as in the second translation – by saying, “God is laughing at me, and so is everyone else.” We can respond to our plans gone awry with shame or anticipatory embarrassment, worried about what others will think about the way our lives didn’t go according to plan. We can laugh the bitter laughter of cynicism.
Or, in the face of the unexpected, we may respond as the first translation suggests Sarah did after she gave birth – a laughter of pleasant surprise. We can assume that others are on our side, laughing with us. In the face of the absurd, we can get in on the joke with God.
The midrash teaches that in her laughter after the birth of Yitzhak, Sarah “increased the light of the luminaries.” Rashi explains that she laughed on behalf of the whole world, setting off a chain reaction of healing for all those who were sick and of fertility for all those praying for a child, and answered prayers for all those praying. The power of this laughter is such that it has the potential to heal beyond the person doing the laughing.
As we enter into this Shabbat Vayera, may we find in our prayer a shared joke with the universe, turning our most cynical instinct into a trust that our future holds something beyond what we could have ever planned.