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01.11.2020 11:21    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  vayera  

Both Abraham and Sarah Laughed, But Differently

The Bible rarely describes emotions and feelings.[1] At the end of the previous weekly reading, Parashat Lekh Lekha, when Abraham is informed that he will have a son by Sarah, he falls on his face and laughs:  “Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?’” (Gen. 17:17).  We do not see the Holy One, blessed be He, calling him to task in that instance, asking him “Why did you laugh just now?”  In contrast, when Sarah laughs about bearing a son at her advanced age, the Holy One, blessed be He, calls her to task, as if defending His honor (Gen. 18:13-14):

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sara laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’  Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?  I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sarah shall have a son.”

Rabbenu Hayyim ben Atar, known as Or ha-Hayyim, raises the question:  How was Abraham’s laughter different from Sarah’s laughter, that the Holy One, blessed be He, did not call Abraham to task for laughing, whereas He did indeed for Sarah laughing?  And not only did He call her to task, He even argued with her when she denied having laughed, as it is written, “Sarah lied, saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ for she was frightened.  But He replied, ‘You did laugh’” (Gen. 18:15).

Rashi, following Targum Onkelos, finds the difference between Abraham’s laughter and Sarah’s laughter in the significance of the laugh, its nature, and what it expressed.  That is, Abraham’s was the laughter of delight, of optimism.  Accordingly, Onkelos’ translation says Abraham “rejoiced.”  That is to say, Abraham believed and was happy because a son would be born to him, improbable as it might seem.  But why?  Because G-d had said so, and if He had said so, that would come to pass.  Thus Abraham’s laughing was an outward expression of his inward sense of belief and happiness.

In contrast, Sarah’s was the laughter of scorn and lack of faith.  Onkelos translated her laughter as being from the same root as smiling, expressing contempt and the absence of true hope, as Rashi explained:  “She looked at her stomach and said, ‘Is it possible that this womb shall bear a child?  Can these withered breasts ever produce milk?’” (on Gen. 18:12).  In other words, Sarah had lost faith in her ability to bear, and for that reason the Holy One, blessed be He, called Sarah to task but did not call Abraham to task (Rashi on Gen. 17:17).  The Holy One, blessed be He, who sees into one’s inner thoughts, knew how to distinguish between Abraham’s reverent laugh and Sarah’s irreverent laugh, between laughter emanating from sanctity and strong faith and laughter—even if only in one’s heart—that stems from contempt and lack of true faith.

Or ha-Hayyim rejects this interpretation, which ascribes two different meanings to the same word:  “On what did the Holy One, blessed be He, rely, taking one word to have two different meanings?”  That is to say, how could the root tz-h-k(= to laugh) be interpreted in one instance in the sense of true joy and in the other as indicating scorn and contempt?[2] He explains:

Indeed, the correct explanation is that the Holy One, blessed be He, indeed was precise in His words, and for good reason called Sarah to task and not Abraham.  For we find that Abraham laughed when he received the annunciation, but this was not the case with Sarah.  She did not laugh when she received the annunciation, but when she saw her youthfulness returning, as it says, “And Sarah laughed” etc., “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment?”[3]

This indicates that she did not credit the promise of bearing a child until she had seen a change occur in herself; and for this the Lord called her to task.  Thus, He said, “Why did Sarah laugh?” meaning:  this laughter I will call to task, but not your laughter, because this laughter was as if to say, “So it is actually true!”  For she only believed after the fact that she would bear a child, and this shows that she was of little faith and did not trust My promise to her, since it was a miraculous thing to happen, as it is written, “Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?”  (Or ha-Hayyim, Va-Yera 18:13)

According to Or ha-Hayyim, the distinction between Abraham’s laughter and Sarah’s laughter was not in the essence of the laughter.  Both Abraham and Sarah laughed out faith, however the timing of their laughter was different.  Abraham laughed as soon as the Holy One, blessed be He, informed him that He would grace him with having a child.

At that very moment, well before Abraham sensed any change in his body, he had perfect faith in the might and ability of the Holy One, blessed be He, to change the nature of the world and give him virility and the ability to beget a son, just like any young man.  In contrast, with Sara, “she did not credit the promise of bearing a child until she had seen a change occur in herself; and for this the Lord called her to task.”

In other words, Sarah did not laugh immediately, but only after discerning that biological changes were occurring in her body.[4] Only then, when faith was implanted in her, did she begin to laugh.  Because of this alone—because her faith had not preceded her sensing a supernatural change in her body—the Lord called her to task.[5] In other words, Abraham had faith from the outset, whereas Sarah had only after the fact.  Such faith leaves something to be desired, for if the miraculous thing had begun to happen, it is no longer a matter of believing but of knowing.

It is relevant to speak of “faith” only when we do not know explicitly whether something is true or false, reliable or misleading.  But the moment something becomes known, we no longer have the choice of believing or not believing, for the thing already speaks for itself.  Therefore, even if Sarah had not yet conceived, nevertheless she already felt all her bodily systems becoming rejuvenated, her ability to bear taking on a new aspect, and was as if reborn.  Conceiving and bearing had become a possibility, so she believed that the Holy One, blessed be He, had remembered her.

The Holy One, blessed be He, bestowed upon Sarah such an abundance of beneficence and such enormous change, that the midrash describes the day of Isaac’s birth as one of laughter, joy, and light for the world, many being blessed by virtue of Sarah:

Sarah said, “G‑d has made me laugh; everyone who hears will laugh with me”—Rabbi Berakhia b. Rabbi Judah b. Rabbi Simon in the name of Rabbi Samuel b. Rabbi Isaac said:  If Reuben has cause to rejoice, what does it matter to Simeon?  Similarly, if Sarah was remembered, what did it matter to others?  But when the matriarch Sarah was remembered, many other barren women were remembered with her; many deaf gained their hearing; many blind had their eyes opened, many insane became sane.  For “making” is mentioned here [has made me], and also elsewhere (Esther 2:18):  “He [the king] proclaimed [Heb. `asah = “made”] a remission of taxes for the provinces.”  As the making mentioned there means that a gift was granted to the world, so the making mentioned here means that a gift was granted to the world.  (Genesis Rabbah 53:8)

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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