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What is Wrong with Laughter?

In the Torah, the episode of the Golden Calf describes the people creating an idol, sacrificing to it, feasting before it, and then dancing – or laughing – with it. There are countless questions that come out of this episode, but I want to focus on just one word: the word used to mean “to dance”.

Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance. (Ex. 32:6)

It is actually not an odd word, but it is used very differently elsewhere in the text: the word in Hebrew is “tzachek” which means laughter. It is first found when Avraham and Sarah are told she will have a son (Gen 17:17 and 18:12), and they both laugh, with some degree of disbelief. Lot’s sons-in-laws similarly do not leave Sodom because they think their father is “jesting” – the Hebrew is the same word. The word in this context refers to disbelief, to refusing to truly hear the speaker – whether G-d or another person.

There is another meaning of this word as well, referring to an intimate encounter:

When some time had passed, Abimelech king of the Philistines, looking out of the window, saw Isaac “tzachek” with his wife Rebekah. Gen 26:8

And again with Joseph: Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph of trying to seduce her:

She called out to her servants and said to them, “Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to “tzachek” with us! … Then she told [Potiphar[ the same story, saying, “The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to “tzachek” with me. (Gen 39: 14,17)

Both of these meanings directly come to explain what was going on with the Golden Calf.

The first meaning, of disbelief, of refusing to take something seriously, of truly hearing the speaker, is all about trying to hear and grow, in good faith. The Torah considers good faith to be a primary virtue, and rejecting the words of G-d are a good way to kill a conversation.

So when the people laugh, it amounts to a blanket rejection of the giving of the Torah at Sinai: G-d had produced the incredible revelation at the mountain, and the people ended up laughing in disbelief, just as Avraham and Sarah and Lot’s sons-in-laws had done. “Tzachek” is a way of refusing to try to come to grips with what had just happened.

But the second meaning is even more profound and interesting. Recall that Isaac’s very name is the very same root word “tzachek” – so as a forefather, it tells us that this word is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, when Isaac “tzacheks” with his wife, he is engaged in marital familiarity or outright intimacy. This is the very same meaning of the word that is advance by Potiphar’s wife to refer to sex (though not love).

In other words, “tzachek” is what loving husbands and wives do with each other. It is personal and intimate and special. The word is strongly tied to a notion of fidelity.

So when the people “tzachek” in front of the golden calf, they are doing more than just dancing. They are taking what belongs in the privacy of a marriage, and exhibiting it in public. More than this: the people are committing adultery. We are married to our spouses and to G-d. So when we “tzachek” out of either marriage, we are committing both idol worship and adultery.

This is the linguistic potency of the Torah. In a single word, we are told that the people scoffed at the revelation at Sinai, preferring instead to frolic in escapist hedonism. And we are also told with that very same word that the private and intimate, loving relationship that belongs between two married people was instead made into a public and openly-adulterous spectacle, a betrayal of our marriage to G-d.

P.S. The Torah is also telling us that this idea, of laughter or intimacy, is not itself good or bad. “Tzachek” is a key part of a holy relationship, with Isaac himself having this word as his name. The word contains within it the potential to be either: like anything else, sex or dancing can be obscene or holy, deeply corrosive or profoundly beautiful.

Comments are welcome!