Vayera: Why Did Sarah Laugh?

Perhaps the alleged scoff was actually a squeal of delight?

Perhaps the alleged scoff was actually a squeal of delight?

Table for Five: Vayera

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

And Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have become worn out, will I have smooth flesh? And also, my master is old.”

-Gen 18:12

Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org

Even though we know that it is the right thing to tell the truth, we also know that there are times when lying can be more “truthful.” The trouble is knowing when.

So often, people fool themselves into believing they are lying for the “right” reason when they are really lying to protect themselves from an undesirable consequence. And we’re not talking about people who have no problem lying, but about people who really prefer to tell the truth. The bottom line is that if a person is going to lie, they better be sure it is really the better truth for the moment. Like God in this week’s parsha, Who changed the truth about what Sarah said regarding her husband.

Sarah laughed at the prophecy of having children because she couldn’t believe that her body could manage it after having aged so much. But she went even further by saying that her husband was simply too old to father children, which could have been offensive to Avraham, had he later found out. So, when God reported what she said to Avraham, He focused on what Sarah said about herself, leaving out the part about Avraham’s old age. This was such a blatant change of facts that the Talmud learns from this that it is permissible to lie for the sake of peace in the home…if you can be as altruistic about a “lie” as God was. If you can’t be, then sticking with the facts is probably best.

Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Interfaith Chaplain, Kaiser Medical Center Panorama City

I empathize with Sarah Imeinu’s dubiety regarding the hope of motherhood.  Countless parents of ripe childbearing years struggle to conceive, let alone those as advanced in years as Sarah and Avraham.  Even with phenomenal technologies available to us, we still rely upon ardent prayer to fulfill all sorts of dreams, including parenthood.  Even in this era of mass disruption, of uncertainty, of delayed dreams and deferred promise—when it may well be laughable to believe we will see a shining and normal tomorrow — a woman would find herself bewildered at the prospect of becoming a mother in the twilight of life. How much more so Sarah in the ancient world.

Indeed, only a chapter prior to this in Genesis 17:17, Avraham Avinu foreshadows his wife’s reaction to the selfsame news.  Straightforwardly, in the verse following ours, the Divine messenger echoes God’s initial befuddlement to Avraham, as if to say, ‘don’t you guys believe in God? Whatsa mattah witcha?!’

Paradoxically when odds are absurd, we persist with freakish glee. Thirteen years ago, at age 42, I announced my desire to attend rabbinical school.  Predictably my wife’s jaw dropped to the floor, and rightfully so.  I had no prior training, our daughter was attending private day-school, we had a mortgage to pay, and neither of us was getting any younger.  In addition to creativity with schedules and budgeting, it took a whole lot of laughter for our family to traverse that stretch.  Time and again, it is the most unfathomable of sacred goals which comes to fruition.

Rabbi Lori Shapiro, Open Temple

Periods. Menopause. Aging Bodies. In just two verses we know that Sarah used to have her period, but she is currently post-menopausal. Living in 2021, where #MeToo and neo-Victorianism confuse and confound, Torah sheds light on Sarah’s sex-positive declaration. It is NOT a declaration about motherhood; rather, it is a personal titillation or delight that Sarah will have “some sexy-time” again.

Ibn Ezra elucidates: “the word ednah means pleasure and enjoyment.” There is no chastening Sarah’s words here. Her laughter “to herself” is a release of the sensual pleasure which she has formerly self-contained; her reflection “am I to have enjoyment?” is Dr. Ruth worthy – yes, you are, Sarah; yes, Yes, YES!

But one ambiguity remains: who is Sarah’s sexual consort? We are not given a front row seat to the act itself that creates Yitzak. And a thought arises – might Sarah, a relic of the ancient near-Eastern Goddess traditions, herself be God’s lover? Love-making is a transcendent gift that brings two humans into yichud (oneness), an experience of the presence of something that we call Godly. When Sarah “was to have a son,” as equally important as securing God’s covenant with Abraham, “was to experience sexual pleasure” all of the days of her life. And so she laughed. And so he was laughter. And so shall we laugh (I’ll have what she’s having).

Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg, Dean of Students, Shalhevet High School

Perhaps the key to understanding this verse is its third word: בקרבה, “within herself.” Rashi, the classical biblical commentator, interprets the phrase physically – “within herself” refers to Sarah’s actual insides, her womb. Sarah laughs because her “insides” are no longer biologically capable of carrying a child.

But the more literal translation of the verse suggests that “within herself” describes not the subject, but the *place* of her laughter. Don’t think of Sarah laughing out loud, instead her incredulous response to the promise of bearing a child takes place in her thoughts alone. No one hears her and no explicit expression is made; her doubt is an internal conversation located strictly within the confines of her consciousness.

This subtle layer to this story may illustrate an important difference in Abraham and Sarah’s character, and perhaps more significantly in their respective relationships with Hashem. Whereas Abraham is depicted throughout his life with strong language and decisive behavior (think of the stories of Sodom and the Akeidah), Sarah, at least in this episode, models the space that doubt occupies in our relationship with God. While Abraham’s relationship with God is one that’s firm and resolute, Sarah’s belief is never completely rid of her uncertainties.

We may often look like Abraham on the outside – confident and in control, but inside we all have this piece of our matriarch, Sarah, lurking. Taken together, Avraham & Sarah set up a dynamic paradigm of faith, one that will be useful and meaningful for *all* of their descendants.

Salvador Litvak, Writer, Director, Accidental Talmudist

Great is the power of speech, which not only separates us from the animals but even elevates us toward the heavenly realm. It might seem naive to ascribe a mystical dimension to the words of humans in general, especially in light of how poorly the faculty of speech is being used these days, but I stand by the observation. Words matter, even if no one hears them but you.

Immediately after our verse, God’s angel says, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Is it really true that I will give birth, even though I am old? Is anything too wondrous for The Lord?’” Sarah denies laughing because she’s afraid, but the angel calls her out, saying “You did laugh.”

The students of Talmudic sage Rabbi Yishmael taught that great is peace, for even the Holy One departs from truth in order to preserve it: His angel changed her statement from “my husband is old” to “I am old” in order to spare Abraham’s feelings, thus preserving the peace between husband and wife. On the other hand, the angel did not spare Sarah’s feelings when she tried to deny that she’d laughed.

I would like to suggest that God and the angel were teaching lessons in positive thinking and positive speech. The little jokes we toss off when someone thinks aloud about making a journey, starting a project, etc. often have devastating effect on that nascent idea. As my teenage son once quipped, “It only takes one person to say ‘This plan is falling apart’ to make that plan fall apart.” Since we usually don’t have an angel or prophet around to birth new ideas for us, any new ideas that flash into our brains may well be coming straight from the Almighty. So let’s not be too quick to dismiss them with a chuckle. Not every new idea is holy to be sure, but you never know…

With thanks to Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Rabbi Lori Shapiro, Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg, and Salvador Litvak.

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