This is adapted from a speech I gave on October 28 as my son Isaac became bar mitzvah at Sutton Place Synagogue in New York City. If you wish to watch it, you may do so by clicking this link.
The first thing you need to know about our son Isaac is that his name was not supposed to be Isaac. It was going to be Shai. He was born, 13 years ago, on July 14. And Ayala and I looked at him and we kissed him and called him “Shai,” but we kept the name to ourselves, as it is tradition not to share the name of a Jewish son until the brit milah, the ritual circumcision, eight days after birth.
And something didn’t feel right, and then the next day, we looked at each other and we said “his name is Isaac.” And thereafter his name was Isaac. And I tell you, there was something very deep, dare I even say providential, in this.
In today’s section of the Torah read by our Isaac in Hebrew—which is called “Lech Lecha,” or “Go Forth”—the name Isaac appears for the first time, long before his birth. God not only tells Abraham that Abraham will have a son; He commands Abraham, the first Jew, to name that son Isaac.
This is really something, because Isaac is the only person God Himself specifically names in the Torah.
The first person born on earth who is born a Jew was given his name by God Himself, and he is the last God will favor with his choice of name. And the name God chose for the first-born Jew means…well, no one has figured out exactly how to translate it, but it’s something like “he who laughs,” or, simply, “laughter.”
Think of it. The first Jew was named laughter.
Here we are, with our people in the midst of a war that is following the same kind of savage and unprovoked attack that has beset our people for millennia. And we’re here today in this beautiful sanctuary to celebrate. But how can we celebrate? How can my family celebrate?
My sister Ruthie, who lives in Tel Aviv, cannot be with us—she is helping the government with English-language communications. Her son Alon—my nephew and Isaac’s first cousin—celebrated his 38th birthday this week in the reserves. Ruthie’s son-in-law, Tzvika, is in the reserves too. He’s away from his wife, my niece Avital—who is Alon’s sister and also Isaac’s first cousin. Avital is due to give birth any second. And she is worried about how she’s going to get from her front door to the bomb shelter with a child not yet three and a newborn in arms with a husband away at war.
I ask again: With all this, with the bombs flying—and a kid who attended Isaac’s own day school and was a classmate of Isaac’s sister Shayna, a brave and remarkable kid named Dylan Mann, getting assaulted on the streets of New Orleans near Tulane and sent to the hospital with a broken nose for his heroic effort in running to defend a friend who was trying himself to keep the Israeli flag from being set on fire—how can we celebrate?
Well, we can. We are here to celebrate, and indeed, we are, in a sense, commanded to celebrate. Isaac has reached the age of 13, and he is assuming the responsibilities of a Jewish adult. As I did when I was 13, while the Vietnam War was still raging. And as my father did when he was 13, in the middle of World War II. And as Ayala’s father did, in the last year of World War II. And as their fathers did, in the era of the pogrom. And on and on and on back through time. This is the glory and burden of our people. We must celebrate even in the midst of horror and tragedy.
But what is it exactly we are celebrating? After all, people turn 13 every day. Becoming a Jewish adult is a pain. Being a Jew is a pain. Isaac, in the beautiful commentary on today’s Torah portion he wrote and just read, actually evoked the anxiety of being a Jew—the fact that God, here, promises Abraham he will make of us a great nation represents not only a reward but a perpetual threat. It is a threat from the hostility and envy of others who would want to make us small, or destroy us altogether.
That’s some prize we got, huh? It’s the reason Jews have told some version of this joke forever: The Jew who goes up to Heaven and asks God whether we’re the chosen people. “Yes, Shmulik,” God says, “you are the chosen people.” “Well,” says Shmulik, “would you mind choosing someone else for a change?”
So maybe we are celebrating….laughter.
Laughter comes in all forms. Sarah laughs in disbelief, scornfully, when she’s told she’s going to have a baby at 75. Then, having been visited by the miracle of this birth, a no-longer-scornful Sarah declares in delight, “God has brought me laughter.”
God brought us laughter with our Isaac too. Our Isaac has delighted us. He has amused us. He has lit up our life from the day he was born. Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a boastful sort, declares that “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.” Isaac is about the least boastful person on earth, but if he were braggy, he could say the same of himself. He’s funny and other people are funnier when they’re around him.
He speaks in jests, mostly, and bantering with him is one of life’s joys and always was. When he was maybe four, Ayala went to LA for work and he said “I’m going to miss mommy so much.” And I, following the advice of sage post-toddler experts, sought to reassure him. “Don’t worry, I’ll be here,” I said, to allay his fears of abandonment. And he looked at me and said, “You know I don’t like you, right?”
I think he liked me. I think he likes me now. I know he loves his mother, who has been his rock as she has been mine. He loves his grandfathers, one of whom, Norman, is blessedly here with us today and one, Burt, who is in Chicago watching this on Zoom and, I am sure, is beaming with pride. Isaac loved his grandmothers—one, Bobbie, whom he sadly only knew as a baby and one, Midge, whom he was privileged to know until she passed last year. He loves his aunts and uncle, Ruthie and Naomi and Ellen and Ilana, and an aunt whom he, again, only knew as a baby and who knew him and loved him right back—and with her mother and with Ayala’s mother is likely tuning in right now on celestial Zoom. Hi, Rachie.
And what I have seen practically every day of my life is how dearly Isaac loves and cherishes his smart and kind and thoughtful and endlessly fascinating sisters. I grew up with three sisters and I know what it means to have great older sisters. And he shares that taste for laughter with them. The three of them watched The Good Place together I don’t know how many times, and listened to the funniest of Broadway musicals, Something Rotten, a hundred times together, and they love John Mulaney and they love Demetri Martin and I don’t even know who else.
Laughter is not only Isaac’s name, it is his guidepost, as it should be ours. These have been among the worst weeks of my life, of all of our lives. But we cannot allow the evildoers to rob us of the glories of this earth, its beauties, its bounties, its joys. That is what they want from us, from us Jews, Isaac. They want us to sink into despair, because that will weaken us, and their goal is to take away from us the miracle that is our state, our homeland, the refuge and the place, as Michal Cotler-Wunsch has said, that exists now in the wake of the Holocaust because if it had existed before, there would have been no Holocaust. Just as there will be no Holocaust now because there is an Israel. Just as we will live to laugh, and to celebrate, and to live as Jews.
If you go by the way scholars count, the first Isaac, the first-born Jew, was born around 1830 BCE. Here we are, then, some 3,850 years later, sitting some 6,000 miles and across a vast ocean from where Isaac’s father circumcised him in this greatest of cities that did not even exist in his time.
Here, on this bimah, is another Isaac, our Isaac, reading from the scroll on which is inscribed the Book that has kept us together as a people through two millennia of statelessness through the last 75 years of restoration from exile.
And Isaac, our Isaac, let me say to you I know, in my bones, down to my marrow, as I welcome you, a Jewish man named for the first born Jew, into life as a Jew—let me say to you that 3,850 years from now, and perhaps millions of miles from this city, in a place we may not even be able to imagine in an existence we cannot fathom, there will be another Isaac. Perhaps he too will bear the same Hebrew name as you: Yitzkhak ben Yaakov Mordechai ha-Levi v’Ayala. And that Isaac, 3,850 years from now, will turn 13. And that Isaac will stand before an ark too, and he will direct his body and his gaze toward Jerusalem as Jews have always done as they pray—but in this case on whatever 3-dimensional axis will make sense to do that.
And that Isaac will stand before the scroll that has been our people’s binding garment, and elders will unfurl it to the right spot for him to begin reciting it, and he will touch that spot with his ritual tallit, and that Isaac will say, as Jews say before the reading of the Torah, “Barchu et-Adonai hamevorach,” which means, “Blessed be God.”
And there will be a congregation there—there will be at least ten adults present, as there always must be ten adults present. And to those words that Isaac will have spoken to begin his reading, the congregation will respond, as congregations have always responded and must always respond, “Baruch adoni hamevorach leolam va ed,” which means “Blessed be God, the blessed one, forever and ever.”
And then, moments later, just like you earlier this morning, that Isaac will begin reading the very same words you began with today—words written down in a time before most of the world even had the wheel:
“Vayomer Adonai el-Avraham, Lech lecha!”
“And God said to Abraham, Go forth!”
Because we were here. And we are here now. And we Jews, we will be here. As long as there is a here.
Mommy and I love you, Isaac. And we will laugh with you, as long as we have breath to laugh, because that is what God commanded us as a people, by naming the first-born Jew laughter.