There’s a beautiful new Mahzor circulating in the world of Conservative Judaism this year, thanks to the passion and scholarship of our own Rabbi Eddie Feld. Looking through it for some insight into today’s Torah portion, I was struck by a quotation from Hayim Nachman Bialik, the great Hebrew poet. “Before God,” Bialik said, “there are languages other than words. These are weeping, laughter, and melody. They are the possessions of all who live. They are manifestations of the very deepest levels of our being.” This statement reminded me of a scientific study I’d read about, suggesting that the words in our minds constitute a kind of flimsy story we tell ourselves, for social reasons or to shelter our psyches, whereas feelings announce who we really are. Feelings speak in the primal terms of survival: lust, love, hatred, tears, and laughter. It occurred to me that in doing tshuva we lower ourselves down into the chamber of these discordant emotions, discovering that atonement is not changing what cannot be changed, but bringing fullness to the internal melody.

The connection between Rosh Hashanah and the saga of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac, which we read today and tomorrow, is not obvious, but the raw emotionality of the parsha is. It hinges, precisely, in two important places, on laughter and tears. (21:6) Vatomer Sarra, tskhok asa li elohim, kol hashomea yitsakhka li. “Sarah said, ‘God has made laughter to me; everyone who hears will laugh to me.” {The translation is deliberately messy—we’ll come back to that.} (21:16} Va-teshev mineged, vateesa et kolah va’tevk. “Sitting at a distance, Hagar burst into tears.”

There is a theory that we read these stories today because they tell about the birth of Isaac, the son through whom Judaism is perpetuated, an appropriate theme for the birthday of the world, which also expresses our hope for the perpetuation of the Jewish people through the cycles of time. What’s interesting, however, is that these stories seem to have less to do with birth itself than they do with weaning. The word ‘weaning’ appears in the text: va-ya’as avraham mishteh gadol b’yom higamel et yitschak. “And Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was higamel—weaned.” But beyond the literal cessation of breastfeeding, these are tales about moments of rupture, crisis, and emergence in parent child relationships—myths that demonstrate how we separate from, while remaining enmeshed in, family emotions.

Tomorrow we will look at the more familiar akedat Yitskhak, the ‘binding of Isaac’, but today we read the similarly harrowing ozvat Yishmael, the ‘abandonment of Ishmael.’ The two stories have a parallel shape: at God’s suggestion or with God’s approval, a child is taken by his parent into the wilderness and exposed to death, only to have life restored to him at the last moment through the intercession of an angel. Today, Ishmael and his mother Hagar are banished from the house of his father Abraham, because Sarah, Abraham’s first wife and now the mother of Isaac, finds their presence distressing. In contrast to Abraham’s seeming calm in leading Isaac to the slaughter in tomorrow’s story, Hagar is evidently distraught to be left with Ishmael at the mercy of the elements. “She wandered about in the wilderness of Be’er Sheva. When the water in the skin was gone, she left the child under one of the bushes and went and sat down at a distance a bowshot away—kimtakhavei keshset—for, she thought, ‘Let me not look on as the child dies.’” And now comes the verse I’ve already cited: “Sitting at a distance, she burst into tears.” Vateesa et kolah vatevk.”

The story has a happy ending—Ishmael survives by the grace of God and gives rise to a great nation in his own right—but this is less interesting to me than contemplating who Ishmael becomes as a result of lying helpless and alone, hearing the faint sound of his mother’s weeping carried by the wind—kimtakhavei keshet—the distance of a bowshot. The Torah doesn’t tell us in so many words, but it does say this: (21:20) “And God was with the boy as he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness, vayihi roveh kashet—and he became skilled with the bow.” The experience is not erased from his memory. Ishmael grows up imprinted with his mother’s tears, and the painful bowshot distance from himself that they represent. But the wound does not seem to become a scar. Instead, it inspires him to fashion strength for himself as an archer, a skill that bridges his abandonment and insures his survival.

Though shaped by his mother’s tears, Ishmael is not named for them—the name Yishma’el refers to God hearing Hagar’s voice when she was lost in the wilderness at another time—but his half-brother, by contrast, is named for the emotion of his mother. Vatomer Sarra, tskhok asa li elohim, kol hashomea yitsakhk li. This is the confusing verse I cited earlier, it’s meaning dependant on how you translate the Hebrew prepositional phrase ‘li’—‘to me’. The words tskhok and yitsakhak are both related to the name Yitskhak, Isaac. All are grammatical forms of the root tsakhak, meaning ‘laugh’. But what is Sarah saying here? Many of the translations I looked at take the high road: “Sarah said, God has brought laughter to me. Everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” But it is quite logical, and perhaps even preferable, to translate it another way: “Sarah said, God has made me into a source of laughter—God has made a joke of me. Everyone who hears about this—that I have given birth to a child after my menopause and with my husband well into old age—will laugh at me.”

This ambivalence should not come as a surprise. We already know that Sarah has a very sophisticated sense of humor, and a complicated relationship to tskhok, to laughter. Hagar’s weeping may well up and overflow as a pure and anguished expression of her spirit, but Sarah’s laughter is more cautious, filtered, multivalent. This is not even the first time she has laughed at, or with, God. Earlier in Genesis, when three mysterious men show up at the door of Abraham’s tent to announce that Isaac will be born, against all odds and laws of human biology, simply as a miraculous sign of her husband’s walk with God, Sarah has a characteristic reaction: vatitskhak sarra b’kirbah—“and Sarah laughed b’kirbah (a word I’ll leave untranslated for a moment) saying: after I have faded, will I have pleasure, and my husband as old as he is?” She laughs b’kirbah—‘within herself’ is one way of translating this—it is something personal and private. Sarah is ashamed when God overhears this private laughter. Sarah is enraged, in today’s parsha, when Ishmael, whom she bitterly resents, appears to partake of it: (21:9-10) “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian who had been born to Abraham mitsakhek. (clarify) And she said to Abraham: throw them out!”

But we can consider what it means to say that Sarah laughs b’kirbah in another way. There is certainly a bite to Sarah’s laughter, a coloring of irony or sarcasm, which we can imagine she has come by honestly in the course of her strange experience with her husband, the headstrong man of God, living in the wake of his glorious and challenging adventure. But though it may contain bitterness, her laughter seems to form a secret reservoir that has gathered b’kirbah, within her, sustaining her even as her life compresses. I don’t think it’s even all that far-fetched to translate vatitskhak sarra b’kirbah as “And Sarah laughed in her innards—and Sarah laughed in her womb.” The laughter with which she greets the news that after so many withering years she is finally to be granted a child, because now it is part of the divine plan, indicates the stirring of a profound emotional fertility, and if it is God who miraculously places life in her barren womb, it is her own fertile soul that sustains that life, brings it to fruition, and names it Yitskhak, Isaac, laughter.

We have seen the effect of Hagar’s weeping on the development of Ishmael, but what does Sarah’s laughter make of Isaac? We are probably more used to viewing Isaac in relationship to his father Abraham. Modern commentators, noting that Isaac’s narrative is pretty sparse in comparison to those of both Abraham and Isaac’s son Jacob, consider him a kind of stunted patriarch, who may never have fully recovered from the glimpse of mortality and betrayal he saw in his father’s knife. Whether or not this is a valid interpretation of the akedah, it certainly does seem true that Isaac lives a life hemmed in by his father’s mission. He himself never leaves the land of Canaan that was the destination of his father’s bold journey across Mesopotamia. He takes the wife his father gives him. He even pulls off his father’s old shemes—passing off this wife, Rebecca, as his sister to gain preference in the court of Avimelech, the Philistene king.

And yet the Torah tells us, literally, that although Isaac dug no new wells, he was able to find new water in the ones he inherited from Abraham. This also has a figurative truth. I just mentioned the story of Avimelech. Twice in the Abraham narrative, we see him pass Sarah off as his sister to evade what he perceives as a danger, and both times the conclusion to the story comes with the intervention of God. God brings a plague to the court of the Pharoah, or visits Avimelech in a dream. This powerful God is demonstrated as the saving power in Abraham’s life, but when Isaac goes through a similar circumstance, the saving power is something much more intimate and subtle. (26:8) “And it was, after they had been there for many days, that Avimelech looked out of his window, and saw vihinei yitskhak mitsakhek et rivka ishto…Yitskhak was ‘sporting’, as the word is often translated, with his wife”—but the word is mitsakhek—from tsakhak, laughter—without in any way diminishing the erotic force of the term, we could say that Yitskhak was sharing laughter with his wife, sharing joy, and that this manifestation of his own joyful lifeforce has the effect in his experience that the grandiose miracles of God had in the story of his father. It insures his survival.

Isaac may be the quietest, but also the most loving character in the whole Torah. As we will read tomorrow, the first time the word ahava, love, is used in the Torah it is in reference to him. The most purely romantic tableau in the text may be when Isaac is walking across a field at sunset, and looks up to see the caravan of camels coming toward him, bringing Rebecca with them. Following this vision, we read: (24:67) “And Isaac brought her into his mother’s tent, and took Rebecca as his wife, and he loved her, and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” Having learned from his mother what it means to bring laughter into a circumscribed fate, he is able to move forward after she is gone. As Hagar’s distant tears made her son an archer, so has Sarah’s subtle mirth cultivated in her son the capacity to love deeply.

There is a famous story about the Hasidic Reb Zushe, who told his followers that when he went to Olam Haba, the next world, he would have no problem answering the question: “Why weren’t you more like Abraham, Moses, or King David?” “What kind of a question is that?” he would say. “How can you expect to make something so grand out of the material I’m made out of?” “But,” he said, “if they ask me, ‘Reb Zushe, why weren’t you more like Reb Zushe?’ then I’ll know I’m in trouble.” We do not do tshuva, we do not atone, by becoming what we are not and could never be. Instead, we investigate the laughter, weeping and melody that Bialik said were “manifestations of the deepest levels” of who we are—the language through which we truly address the ground of our being—and hope, if not for radical change, than for the sensation of fullness; to pass, like our ancestors, through the births and weanings of our lives, as archers and lovers. Lowering ourselves down into the chaos of this primal music, we listen for that rare occurence—the lev shalem: the momentary stillness of the completed heart.