He Who Laughs Richest1
Avraham called the name of the son born to whom – whom Soroh had born to him – Yitzchok.
We often have to think a bit before we understand the meaning behind a name in Tanach. Yitzchok makes it easy for us. The derivation of his name could not be more apparent. Hashem told Avraham well before Yitzchok’s birth that his son should be given that name. Soroh quickly confirms how appropriate it was to link the birth of her son to the word for “laughter:” “G-d has made laughter for me. Whoever hears will laugh for me.” The nature of Yitzchok’s name seems to be firmly established and resolved.
Chazal, however, don’t quite see it that way. They detect another dimension to Yitzchok’s name, one that projects Yitzchok’s unique avodah into the future. They connect the name Yitzchok to the word “chok,” which means fixed portion, or the sustenance fixed and allocated to each person by Divine Providence. “Yitzchok – chok is dispensed to the world.”
Yitzchok’s importance to us, as well as Chazal’s mystifying insistence of finding another wrinkle in his name, will become apparent when we properly parse a few verses of the navi. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and at the hollow of the pit from which you were dug. Look to Avraham your forefather, and to Soroh who bore you. When he was yet one alone did I summon him and bless him and make him many. For Hashem will comfort Tziyon. He will comfort all her ruins…” Avraham is depicted here as a hewn rock, and Soroh seen as a dug pit. The navi instructs us to “look” at this, which can only mean to examine this relationship in order to gain some important insight.
The images tell us about the way Hashem provides for us. Yitzchok serves as the basis of our understanding how Divine Providence figures in providing sustenance to us as individuals.
Consider a person in an arid climate looking intently for a suuply of water. He picks a position, and digs in desperation. Should he happen to strike water, he will regard his good fortune in hitting an underground spring as near-miraculous. He cannot look upon the continued flow of water from the spring in the same way. Springs provide water. There is nothing surprising or miraculous about that. If he should be chiseling out a piece of rock, however, and water begins to flow from the rock, he will have encountered an overt, ongoing miracle. Rocks do not provide water at all.
These two images match the roles of Avraham and Soroh in the birth of Yitzchok. Avraham, at least in regard to siring children, was like a desiccated rock. There was no more vitality in him that could provide children. Fathering a child in that state was like finding water in a rock.
Soroh, on the other hand, was different. She had returned to a youthful state even before bearing Yitzchok. Her transformation was quite surprising – comparable to hitting a stream of water while digging randomly. Once transformed and restored to youth, however, bearing a child was natural enough.
Why the difference between them? HKBH wanted both to contribute to the birth of Yitzchok, whose intense avodah of tefilah would be the backbone of all future provisioning of Klal Yisrael. It would, at times, include both modes – the overtly miraculous, and the seemingly “fortuitous.”
When the Bnei Yisrael were fed mon from Heaven and drank from Miriam’s spring, there was no room to doubt the Source of their livelihood. Neither they nor any outside observer could account for the survival of the Jews in the wilderness through any other explanation.
This was not to last. Hashem’s Will dictated that our nation would be maintained through less overtly miraculous means – through the rules of the natural order. In fact, however, there is nothing less miraculous in this. Our fortunes are linked directly to our tefilah and our mtizvos. As Ramban so starkly states, all the promises and berachos of the Torah are nothing less than miraculous. There is no natural explanation for why the rains coming on time and the earth yielding its bounty should be contingent on the avodah of the Jewish people, or why the Land will refuse to produce for those who illicitly plant during the Shemitah year. Yet, this is precisely what the Torah demands that we believe. The seemingly natural and fortuitous way in which the laws of nature provide for us is not natural at all. We receive what we do because of our spiritual output, which changes the physical world for the better. It does to the natural world what Hashem did to Sora before she conceived. He positioned her miraculously to be able to bear children naturally.
Unfortunately, we react differently to these two modes. While there was no gainsaying the role of Hashem’s Hand in the miracles of our forty year trek through the wilderness, we are not so astute in detecting the link between our avodah and our material success when He provides for us through natural means. We are meant to understand that all these natural blessings are directly linked to our Divine service; instead, we come to believe that our success is a product of our own energy and ingenuity. In time, we gain clarity and understand what is really at the root of our livelihood, but the damage will have been done. While we learn the truth, the nations of the world persist in the old, false understanding. Because they have not learned the place of Divine Providence, their belief system allows them the latitude to persecute us. This continues until such time that they, too, come to recognize the role of Jewish avodah in their own well-being. (While the beis ha-mikdosh stood, the seventy offerings of Sukkos showcased that role. In the course of our galus as well, eventually the nations of the world will be able to see how often their fortunes were dictated by changes in Hashem’s providential relationship with the Jewish people.)
This is how we are to understand the passage in Yeshaya. When he – Avraham – was yet one alone – and had no children, and was incapable of having children, did I summon him. I did bless him with Yitzchok, and make him many with all the children he fathered through Keturah. Although he was initially incapable of having any children, I miraculously put him on a different path. Once on that path, he was capable of having many children, quite naturally. The trajectory of the parnasah of Klal Yisrael works similarly. It is created miraculously, dependent upon Klal Yisrael’s spiritual output of mitzvos and davening. Once created, its benefits spill over to others. Even in galus, the other nations eventually take note of the correspondence between Hashem’s beneficence to His people and their own good fortune. In time, they will comprehend the roles of HBKH and of Klal Yisrael, leading to much honor of Heaven. They will view the Jewish people differently. Through that change, “Hashem will comfort Tziyon. He will comfort all her ruins.”
According to one opinion in the gemara, the original Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah was entirely different from what we read today. Neither the gemara nor Rashi explain why the original reading (describing the holiday of Rosh Hashanah) was changed in favor of including our parshah. Our development of its theme helps explain the change. The Torah’s treatment of the birth of Yitzchok is inextricably linked to the manner in which Hashem provides parnasah to Klal Yisrael. It is only in galus that we experience the full force of this system. In that system, the contribution of Avraham begins the process with the overtly miraculous. It transitions, however, to the contribution of Soroh, in which the initially miraculous continues to provide through the natural order.
1. Based on Harchev Davar, Bereishis 21:3
2. Bereishis 17:19
3. Bereishis Rabbah 53:7
4. Thus, the gemara Beitza 16A explicitly links chok with parnasah.
5. Yeshaya 51:1-3 These pesukim are part of the haftorah of Ekev, the second of the seven readings of consolation for the destruction of the Temples.
6. Vayikra 26:11
7. Rosh Hashanah 31A