Notes for the Field
A relative of my relative is in her mid-90s, an old stubborn woman who lives in Rishon Letzion. She’s lived her life. She immigrated to Israel at a late stage and faced economic hardships, which she overcame. And now she’s frail, and she’s old, and she’s sick.
She is also sick and tired of Hamas, and she’s done with running.
Whenever the Red Alert is sounded in Rishon Letzion, urging folks to seek cover in bomb shelters, this old lady, this relative of my relative, slowly makes her way to her apartment’s balcony. She settles down and waits for it to come. She’s ready. Oh, is she ready. Whether it’s Hamas or God who is coming, she is ready.
Now, this old lady is cared for in her home by a compassionate nurse, a foreign worker in Israel who is not ready to face Hamas or God. After a few days of the current war, as the number of Hamas missiles aimed at Rishon Letzion increased, the home nurse let the relatives of our relatives know that she was ready to quit.
Left with no choice, the old lady’s family had to get involved. It is very hard to find a good home nurse, especially when Hamas is bombing you in Rishon Letzion. What did they do? After a lot of cajoling and back-and-forth, the family finally convinced their grandmother that while she may hang out on the balcony and stand up to Hamas, or, more precisely, sit and laugh at Hamas, her compassionate nurse must leave her and go to the bomb shelter. They even produced a contract for the old lady to sign, permitting her nurse to go to the shelter each time the siren sounded.
I first heard this story at the shiva for my beloved nephew, Yoav, a 19-year-old IDF officer who died bravely in the opening hours of the war. For three days after I received the horrible news of his death, I could not laugh. I couldn’t really feel my own body. I couldn’t really eat either, and at one point during those three days, I was utterly convinced that I would never, ever be able to eat anything ever again. I finally did have a sudden urge to eat—of all things, a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch with oat milk—so I did. And then I was utterly convinced that I would be eating nothing but cereal for the rest of my life.
At the shiva for my nephew, we mostly cried. In the quieter moments, when it was just us, we cried a lot. There were days after the shiva, and others yet to come, in which all of us mourners could do nothing but cry. I think that my sister and brother-in-law continue to cry whenever they are alone.
But at the shiva, we also laughed. Not a lot. Not very loudly. But we did laugh. The story of the fierce old woman, refusing to give in to Hamas, let us laugh. Even now, weeks later, whenever I read about the Red Alert sounding in Rishon Letzion, where this old, stubborn lady lives, I imagine her sitting on that balcony, laughing. Laughing softly and laughing hard. I imagine her laughter to be the laughter of Sarah, our matriarch.
When Sarah heard the news that she, an old woman, would bear a child, she laughed. Avraham, too, famously laughed when he was told that Sarah would bear a child in old age. Their laughter gave their Yitzchak, Isaac, his name—it means “he will laugh.”
Their laughter also gave birth to our laughter, to Jewish laughter, for all time.
An Israeli member of our community told me that one of his three-year-old nieces recently asked her mother: “After all this, will you still laugh?”
I think her question reverberates in all of Israel right now. It is the question of Yitzchak, of Isaac. It is the question of those who heard of their parents’ and grandparents’ mighty struggles to give birth to a nation. It is the question of a generation who never imagined that they would find themselves on Natan Alterman’s silver platter, on which the Jewish State was founded, or on Abaraham’s altar, bound like the biblical Isaac.
Hanitzchak? Will we ever laugh?
I hear and recognize Sarah and Avraham’s laugher in new and old ways now.
It is a self-deprecating laughter. The laughter of wisdom, experience, and old age. This laughter gives perspective. It also creates some distance when things begin to overwhelm our senses and our ability to fully process or integrate.
It is also a laughter developed out of challenge and adversity. It’s a laughter we bring out as a self-defense. A preventive laughter that fills the void before our scoffers and true enemies are given the chance to laugh.
It is, I think, a laughter that sometimes reveals our sense of hopelessness. It comes out when it seems like there’s nothing left to do but laugh. And yet, at the very moment that this laughter comes out, it exposes our sense of hopefulness. After all, look, we can still laugh!
At the shiva, we laughed the laughter of Abraham and Sarah—wise and experienced, preemptive and self-preserving, hopeless and reaching for hope, all at the same time.
In Proverbs, King Solomon writes: “Strength and grandeur are her garment, and she laughs as the last day comes” (Proverbs 31:25).
עֹז וְהָדָר לְבוּשָׁהּ וַתִּשְׂחַק לְיוֹם אַחֲרוֹן
Some of us are familiar with this verse from Eyshet Chayil, which is sung each Friday night in many households.
A number of commentators explain that in this passage, King Solomon is describing the nation of Israel. Despite hardships, she wraps herself in strength and dignity, knowing that ultimately a day will come, maybe it will be the very last day to come, in which she will laugh once again.
In a similar vein, the name Isaac, Yitzchak, is written in the future tense. The name doesn’t mean “Abraham laughed” or “Sarah laughed” or for that matter, that anyone laughed in the past. Instead, it means, “he will laugh.” Or maybe even, “there will be laughter.”
Let me say this with hope, with faith, and in all seriousness: We will laugh. There will be laughter.
It doesn’t seem that way now. It shouldn’t seem that way now. But if any child should ask you: “After all this, will we still laugh?”
You tell them: Nitzchak. Surely, we will laugh.
And even now, even as we cry, we can still draw perspective, strength, and yes, even faith from the laughter of Abraham and Sarah.
And as Israel wraps herself in the sackcloth of mourning and the clothes of war, in our prayers we already know: וַתִּשְׂחַק לְיוֹם אַחֲרוֹן, a day of laughter will ultimately also come.
May it be so hastily in our day.
—Yonatan Cohen is a senior rabbinic fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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