The Divine Tragicomedy
Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )
In the book Hayom Yom, a selection of Chassidic sayings compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, we find the following words about the first three parashiyot of the Torah:
Bereshit is a cheerful parsha, even though its ending is not all that pleasant. Noach has the Flood, but the week ends on a happy note with the birth of our father Avraham. The really joyous week is that of parshat Lech Lecha. We live every day of the week with Avraham, the first to dedicate his very life to spreading Godliness in the world. And Avraham bequeathed his self-sacrifice as an inheritance to all Jews.
Although the Lubavitcher Rebbe does not say so explicitly, his words allude to one of the classical definitions of tragedy and comedy: Tragedy is a story that begins happily but ends unhappily, and comedy is a story that begins unhappily but ends happily.
According to this definition, parshat Bereshit is a bit “tragic,” as it begins with the creation of the world and concludes with God wanting to destroy it, whereas Noach is a bit “comic,” because it begins with the story of the Flood and ends on the hopeful note of Avraham’s birth.
What, then, of parshat Lech Lecha and the story of Avraham – are they “comic” or “tragic”? Simply put, if Avraham’s story begins well and ends well, it must contain within it aspects of both tragedy and comedy.
But what does all this mean, and how can we actually see it in the character of Avraham?
Comedy for Eminent People
An additional definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy will help us make sense of things.
According to Aristotle, tragedies are plays written about, and for, “eminent people,” such as kings or mighty warriors, who aspire to achieve tremendous goals. This is exactly why their stories end tragically: not realizing their limitations, they aim too high, and therefore plummet and crash. The classic example of a tragic figure is Oedipus, who wanted to challenge his predetermined destiny and ended up fulfilling it.
Comedies, on the other hand, are plays written about, and for, simple people. These folks have no grand aspirations – they just want to “get by” in life – but they become entangled in all kinds of scenarios. However, they always make it out happily in one piece, and all’s well that ends well! The classic example of a comic hero is Charlie Chaplin, whose most famous character is, through no coincidence, a simple tramp.
This distinction survives to this day. Most Hollywood movies end happily (a happy ending is even called a “Hollywood ending”), and are made for a mass market audience who want to leave a movie with a “feel good” vibe. On the other end of the spectrum, you have independent art house films, of the kind screened in film festivals and cinematheques, which cater to a more niche sophisticated crowd and tend to be more tragic and explore the darker aspects of life.
These dramatic duality very much characterize a world in which there’s no faith in the Creator, and fate – either a preordained personal destiny, or simply the laws of nature – is seen to rule everything. Those who resist fate suffer a bitter end, and those who reconcile themselves to it live in peace.
How does our father Avraham fit into this scheme? Avraham is unquestionably an eminent person: At a Divine command, He leaves his homeland, his birthplace, and his father’s house for an unknown land; he contends with ten difficult trials; he risks his life to rescue his nephew; the local rulers crown him as a king; and he forges covenants with God and publicly promotes faith in Him.
In this sense, Avraham is the type of person suited for a tragedy. But unlike tragic protagonists, Avraham’s eminence stems not from hubris or arrogance, but from a sincere, wholehearted striving to connect with God and bring His light into the world. His story therefore ends happily: he succeeds, and the rest of the Torah, recounting the history of the people that came forth from him and returned to its land bearing God’s law, is the story of this success.
In triumphing where typical tragic heroes fail, Avraham introduced an innovation to the tradition of ancient Greek drama: a story of an eminent person that ends happily. Avraham taught us all that it’s possible to be great and to take arms against fate, but to do so out of faith and humility, and in this merit succeed. The famous Italian poet Dante called this novel possibility “the Divine comedy,” but perhaps it should be more aptly be named “the human-Divine tragicomedy”…
The Last Laugh
Avraham’s tragicomedy reaches its climax in our parasha, Vayera.
According to the tragic understanding that fate rules everything, Avraham and Sarah, both in their 90s, should not have been able to have a child. Their time was up, and they should have settled for the son Avraham had through his maidservant Hagar. But Avraham beat the system. He proved that a person can resist fate not out of arrogance, but out of deep faith in the Creator who renews His creation at every moment and desires its growth and advancement.
Avraham’s faith essentially says: Fate doesn’t have to get the last laugh. Fate is a show, a stage set, a trial. It’s the things-as-they-are-now, inviting us to believe in the things-as-they-may-yet-be.
Thus the climax of Avraham’s story is the birth of a son who is named Yitzchak, which means laughter. Yitzchak’s birth represents the laughter of joyful faith, a comic laughter that breaks fate's bitter, tragic laughter. It demonstrates the ability to achieve a happy ending, not through compromise or mediocrity, but exactly the opposite: through the aspiration to greatness, interwoven with faith and humility.
Point to ponder: In Chassidic and Kabbalistic thought, tragedy and comedy are rooted in two spiritual worlds called “the world of chaos” (Tohu) and “the world of rectification” (Tikkun). The world of chaos is a world of great lights but small vessels, and therefore quickly brakes. This is the root of tragedy, which deals with great people who fall. The world of rectification, on the other hand, is characterized by large vessels but small lights. This is the spiritual root of comedy – the protagonists makes it, but their “lights” are small and unexciting.
Chassidut teaches us to aspire to a redemptive combination called “lights of chaos in vessels of rectification” – taking the strengths and innovations of the world of chaos and putting them into the stable, wide vessels of the world of rectification. Avraham did exactly that: he took the high aspirations of the tragic hero and turned them into a Divine comedy with a happy ending. May we all merit realizing this combination in our own lives!