at History, at Man
Man plans, God laughs. The world has come to admire the wisdom of the old Yiddish expression. Even our best-laid plans are often doomed to laughable failure in this crazy mixed up world of ours.
But the canon only records one instance of God laughing:.
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them [the nations] in derision. (Psalms 2:4)
The sages thinks it’s so extraordinary, though, the Talmud recounts their extended treatment of the scene.
Avodah Zarah 3b tells the aggadah (story) of God sitting on the throne of Judgment at the end of days. The Messiah (Moshiach – from ‘Moshe’ or ‘Moses’) has come, and everyone who will be redeemed has been. But still the non-Jewish nations, especially those who have oppressed Israel throughout history, have come to plead their cases.
They all come rushing towards the throne, in a chaotic mob, but God wants to give them an orderly hearing. He lines them up and gives each their chance in order: Rome, Persia, Babylon, Greece… Each try to insinuate their way back into His favor by claiming that their imperialistic designs were all for the sake of the Jews. “We created marketplaces, built baths, and amassed silver and gold so the Jews could study Torah,” say the Romans. “We built many bridges and captured many cities and waged many wars so the Jews could study Torah,” the Persians say. But God dismisses them all.
You built bathhouses and marketplaces for prostitutes and amassed wealth for your own corruption. As to war…I am the Master of War.
The nations charge God with favoritism towards His child, Israel. He didn’t give them a fair chance to accept the Torah, they whine. So He makes a deal with them: if they fulfill even one simple mitzvah (commandment), then He will let them pass. He offers them the mitzvah of succah (Tabernacle), one of the delightful and easy ones. The nations rush to build succot on their roofs. But when God cheats by sending a heat wave, they can’t stand it. They trample their succot in anger and walk away grumbling.
Then He does something extraordinary.
It is, as the psalm suggests, derisive laughter. In the same story, the rabbis even contrast this laughter with the laughter of God when he plays with the Leviathan, delighting in His creations and respite from his labors on the Thrones of Judgment and Mercy. But this laughter at the nations seems unkind. It is mocking. It is merciless. It is a show of triumph when perhaps pity would be better suited to His dignity. It makes us uncomfortable. It offends our canons of good sportsmanship. Why couldn’t He just have said, “Good try, old sports,” Or with a “tsk tsk” sent them on their way. They are, after all, facing an unhappy eternity.
Shakespeare wrote, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.” And the world seems to have adopted the universal truth captured in our old Yiddish proverb as its own. Both sayings reflect God’s terrible playfulness, but they don’t accuse Him of being a bad sport. When we hear the sayings, we nod at the recognition of the vagaries of fate, and we can laugh ruefully along with the cosmic joke at our expense.
So what is different about God’s laughter in this instance? After all, it is the Day of Judgment in His Celestial Courtroom. He is trying to be fair. The kingdoms, once haughty, have come to him with pathetic excuses. And, if we put this aggadah in history, the rabbis are still mourning for the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. by the Romans and their subsequent galut [exile or diaspora]. The story represents deep hurt and thirst for balancing the books: judgment is finally meted out at the end of history to the nations who tortured them, enslaved them, martyred them, exiled them, and destroyed their Temples (Persians destroyed the first Temple in 586 BCE).
The rabbis seem to be treading sensitively around God’s apparent gloating. Indeed, they take a detour – and yes the Talmud is all apparent detours – to consider whether God’s laughter is even thinkable or permissible when we are still mourning for the Temple.
They conclude of course that in this one instance, it is… since it already happened and hey, this is God we’re talking about, after all. But even so, if we judge Him by our country club or politically correct canons of gentility, it does seem unmerciful of Him to mock the nations as they are about to be doomed for eternity.
But let’s not be too hasty in measuring God by human dimensions. Surely, if the Yiddish commonplace acknowledges Divine laughter at our mundane plans that go awry on a daily basis, how much more should we acknowledge God’s reaction to all the well-laid plans and grandiose ambitions of the empires of Rome, Persia, Babylon and Greece in the face of their unpleasant final destiny in Olam haBa’ah (the World to Come).
Rav Dovid Bagno of the Institute for Torah Studies of Bar Ilan University unpacks the nuances in “Laughter in the Torah.” I won’t recount his whole discussion, which is well worth reading fully, but Rabbi Bagno unfolds the interplay of meaning in all the words that share the Hebrew root שחק- sh’chok – subtleties we miss in translation. He lists various mystical laughs in Torah, Tanach and Talmud. There are amazingly few, and those are mostly concentrated in a couple of passages:
- the skeptical laughter of Sarah at the unexpected promise of Isaac – whose name means “laughter”
- the mocking laughter of Ishmael at his brother Isaac [which I always read as containing implicit violence]
- the euphemistic “laughter” of Isaac with Rebecca disporting themselves as husband and wife, sport that Avimelech spies on and thinks unseemly
- the joyous laughter that is forbidden before God or by God since the destruction of the Temple
- the laughter [s’chok] of God as he plays [mesachek] with Leviathan
- His derisive laughter at the gerim g’rorim – the misguided nations – when they fail
However, Rabbi Bagno omits mention of one instance, though it is from Talmud, not Torah, in his drash: R. Akiva’s laughter at seeing foxes among the ruins of the Temple. Rabban Gamliel, R. Elazar ben Azaria, R. Joshua and R. Akiva all visit Jerusalem after the Romans have laid it waste. The rabbis all weep at the sight of foxes playing in the rubble, but R. Akiva laughs, because he realizes he is seeing the fulfillment of Uriah’s prophesy.
I mention it because R. Akiva’s laughter is a clue to understanding God’s display of poor sportsmanship here.
As R. Bagno points out, another word that comes from the root for “play” – sh’chok – is mitzachek which itself has two meanings: “play a game” or “break the rules (boundaries)” as in “play with the order of things.” History in HaShem’s hands is a vast, eons-long mischak (game). Remember, in all these puns, laughter is lurking. Together, they suggest that despite the surface contrast, the delight God has in playing with Leviathan shares a deeper radical sense with his laughter at the nations.
The word ‘Leviathan’ is the so-called Seudat Liviatan – the celebration of the righteous with God, Who is recognizing those who fulfilled the Leviat Chen (beautiful accompaniments), the mitzvoth. (Devarim Rabbah 6:3).
The Vilna Gaon explains that this refers to a time when the Torah is common in the world, when its deepest foundations are as well-known as the simplest explanations are today. This will be a time when we are free of all of our accusers and denouncers – when all of the limitations we have will be removed (Bagno)
So God’s disporting Himself with the Leviathan in joy is a secret allusion by the Rabbis to the end of days when the righteous are free of their accusers, and all limitations of the material and political world have been removed. The Leviathan laughter and His laughter at the other nations are really one and the same.
Act 5 of the play on God’s Stage – History – has now drawn to its conclusion. We are in the epilogue, literally “above [after] speech.” All us humans, Jews and the gerim g’rorim alike, have enjoyed free will in how we choose to fulfill our roles in the play, but our destiny has unfolded within God’s foreknowledge of how it will “play” out.
This is a paradox of free-will vs. determinism on which we can break our teeth. But the key to understanding the concept lies with another paradox: Ayn mukdam v’ayn muchar b’Torah – There is no ‘yesterday’ or tomorrow’ in the Torah. For a document that is so imbued with time and order, and so focused on the annual calendar and its command to rehearse our history through the year, this mystical notion seems complete contrary to the theme of the Torah itself. What do you mean there is no past and future?
Think of a vast tapestry that God Himself has designed. Human history from Adam to the Day of Judgment is already woven. But we humans drive the shuttle of time, enacting the individual warp and woof, deciding whether to go left or right, whether to go up or down. And behind us, we trail threads of experience, the record and consequence of all our choices. And that is the point: the purpose of History is our experience of it.
What is a proper reaction to the realization that God always already knows what is going to happen? Why play this entire game at all? If all Creation from beginning to end is known, has He been toying with us all along? Shakespeare and Yiddish wisdom capture a vague echo of this. Rabbi Akiva’s delight at the unfolding of prophesy before his eyes, however, is an actual experience of God’s laughter at the unfolding of His entire design.
The nations fail. They missed their chance to accept the Torah ages ago. They are only now experiencing a taste of truth. The little game with building a succah seems like a cruel exercise, but with this divine view of the whole play of history, we can now understand God’s laugh as more than mere gloating or mere toying with men like flies. In His mercy, He gave Rome and the rest their best possible chance to plead their case, staging the trial fairly, in all its orderly pageantry. He already knew the outcome. But it was important for the Romans to understand why they were doomed. The stagecraft was for their benefit, so that all could at last realize their folly and the justice of His judgment against them.
This theme runs throughout the Torah: all of history is staged for our benefit. When Abraham chooses as he does in the Akedah (near-sacrifice of Isaac), he is brought to a transcendent understanding about the barbarism of human sacrifice. God needed no proof. We humans have to understand the way the universe cries when a human life is sacrificed. The ten plagues in Egypt provide Pharaoh with a stage for hardening his heart, but it is also a display of raw Might staged for the benefit of the Israelites and Egyptians. When the Egyptians pursue the Hebrews across the Red Sea and are drowned, they finally understand how their choices weave history.
As the nations try to excuse themselves, of course He laughs at them. It may seem merciless, but the Moshiach has come, the Temple has been rebuilt, and the time for mercy towards them is over. It is the scene of the final Jubilee, a word that means victory as much as celebration. It derives from yuval (ram) reminding us of the sounding of the shofar.
God’s Laughter is mocking, yes, but as any victory cry would be. It is the laughter of jubilation, the final Jubilee. It is the laughter of Divine sport, like His delight in the Leviathan. It is the laughter of consummation, like the laughter between Isaac and Rebecca. The fertilization between Divine Will and Creation has borne its fruit.