It’s a strange name to give a child.

The child of Abraham and Sarah, the first child to be born to a Jewish family, was named Yitzchok, or Isaac, which means “laughter.”1

Why would Abraham and Sarah choose the name “laughter” for their child, who was destined to be a deeply spiritual person and a patriarch of the Jewish people?

The name Isaac is even more ironic when we considerIsaac kept to himself that the nature and character of Isaac seems to be the polar opposite of laughter and joy. While Abraham was an outgoing extrovert, Isaac kept to himself; while Abraham is characterized in the Torah as the lover of G‑d, Isaac is characterized as being in awe of G‑d. While Abraham represents the attribute of kindness and giving, Isaac embodies strength and discipline. The name Isaac seems out of character with his identity and spiritual path.

But where does laughter stem from? A person may feel happy due to some goodness in his life, yet for the happiness to overflow from his heart and express itself in laughter, he must experience more than the expected measure of joy. Happiness becomes laughter when the joyous event surpasses all expectations, when one is confronted with the unpredictable.

The Torah describes Sarah’s reaction to the birth of her son:

And Sarah said, "God has made joy for me; whoever hears will rejoice over me." And she said, "Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children, for I have borne a son to his old age!"2

Sarah’s giving birth to a child in her old age was more than just a happy event; it was an event that defied all expectations. Every time Sarah held her son in her arms, she was overwhelmed with joy—thus the name Isaac/“laughter.”

Sarah knew that, just as his birth was unexpected, Isaac would father a people whose destiny would defy predictions and expectations. Their very survival would be a miracle. Sarah understood that while Isaac might not be the most charismatic of the Patriarchs, he would possess the ability to create an unpredictable transformation by finding goodness in the most unlikely of places.

Indeed, this was a central theme of Isaac's life. While the Torah tells us precious little about the life of Isaac, the Torah does elaborate on Isaac's success as a well digger. The Kabbalists explain that Isaac's wells represent a departure from his father Abraham's approach. Abraham influenced people by “bringing the water to them.” Abraham was a superb teacher and a charismatic communicator. He showered his listeners with love and, by the force of his character, compelled them to be influenced by his message of G‑d and morality. Isaac, by contrast, did not bring the water to the people. Instead he helped people find the wellspring of G‑dliness within themselves. Abraham would teach through sharing and enlightening; Isaac, by contrast, displayed discipline. He empowered the student to believe in his own ability to dig within himself, to remove the psychological barriers and discover the truth on his own.

Which is why Isaac loved Esau.

Esau was the child who seemed completely uninterested in the ideas of his father and grandfather. He loved the thrill of hunting more than the excitement of ideas. On the surface, he seemed to be in a spiritual desert, devoid of water. Yet Isaac understood that every creation has a spark within it, that every child has a reservoir of pure water within himself. The job of the parent and educator is to dig the well, remove the dirt and discover the water.

Thus, Isaac embodied laughter. Isaac mastered theIsaac embodied laughter skill of seeing the good in unexpected places. He had the ability to mine the holiness that lay in the heart of every person and in the soul of every activity.

As the children of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, we are heirs to the qualities and characteristics they embodied. From Isaac we inherit the ability to be joyous in the face of great challenge. From Isaac we learn to expect the unexpected, to believe in ourselves and in the people around us. From Isaac we inherit the power to create laughter, to discover the deeper truth of reality that is not always noticeable to the naked eye. From Isaac we learn to dig beneath the surface and find the holiness in every person and the good in every experience.3