VAYEIRA (Genesis, 18:1‑22:24) — “What’s So Funny?”

As we discussed last week, there is great significance in the selection of names.  This week, we meet our Patriarch Isaac, Yitzchak in Hebrew.  The literal translation of the name is “he will laugh.”  There are several references to laughter in the early days of Isaac’s life, as well as before he was born.

In last week’s Torah Portion, G-d informed the elderly Abraham that his elderly wife Sarah would soon bear him a child:

Abraham fell on his face – VAYITZCHAK – and he laughed, thinking, “shall a child be born to a hundred-year-old man?  And shall Sarah – a ninety-year old woman give birth!?”  (Genesis, 17:17)

In this week’s Torah Portion, three angels come to visit Abraham, (see “Not Now, G-d, I’m Busy . . . I’ll Talk to You Later!”) and one of them reiterates to Abraham the prophecy that he has already heard:

“I will come back to you at this time next year, and behold Sarah your wife will have a son.” Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent that was behind him … – VATITZCHAK – Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have withered, will I again have delicate skin?  And my husband is old!”  Then G-d said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying: ‘Shall I really bear a child, since I am old?’  [Note that G-d diplomatically leaves out the fact that Sarah also made mention of the fact that Abraham was old.  Why tell Abraham that his wife called him an old man?  Our Sages tell us that we learn from here that SOMETIMES it is o.k. to stretch the truth for the sake of peace.] Is there anything beyond G-d’s ability? At the appointed time I will return to you at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” (Ibid.18:10, 12-13)

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Two people hear the same prophecy.  Abraham laughs, and G-d says nothing.  Sarah laughs, and is criticized by G-d.  What’s the difference?  If Sarah is criticized for doubting the truth of the prediction, why isn’t Abraham?

Actually, there is laughter and there is laughter.

Unkelus was a Roman convert to Judaism (see“Sheepskin or Cheapskin?”) who translated the Torah into Aramaic.  To this day, his translation/commentary is studied weekly.  He gives two different translations to the Hebrew word for laughter:

Abraham fell on his face – VAYITZCHAK – VACHADI – and he was happy. 

Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent that was behind him … – VATITZCHAK – VACHAYCHAS – and she mocked.

Now we can see why Sarah was criticized by G-d, while Abraham was not.  Abraham believed.  Sarah did not.  She needed to hear G-d’s reprimand: “Is there anything beyond G-d’s ability?”

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This is rather surprising.  Read on:

Sometime later, after the birth of Isaac … Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham METZACHAIK – laughing (according to Unkelus’ Aramaic translation – MECHAYICH – mocking.) (Ibid. 21:9)

Since Ishmael had turned into such a scoffer, mocking the teachings of his father, (Rashi quotes interpretations that he was engaging in idol worship, promiscuity, and/or murder) Sarah insisted that Abraham banish the boy and his mother, lest they become a negative influence on Isaac.  (See“Under the Influence of Dregs”)   Sarah’s request was endorsed by G-d:

“…Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice…”  (21:12) The Talmud tells us that “her voice” was divinely inspired; that Sarah’s level of prophecy was greater than that of her husband.

SARAH WAS MORE DEVINELY INSPIRED THAN HER HUSBAND!  Her prophecy was greater!  How could it be that when these two people heard the same prediction from G-d, that the lesser prophet laughed for joy, while the greater prophet ridiculed it?!

For the answer, we have to look back at the actual situation.  Abraham was having a vision, clearly a communication from G-d.  Of course he believed it.  Anyone would believe a direct communication from G-d.

On the other hand, look how Sarah heard the news.  Three strangers walking through the desert, invited to dinner by Abraham.  Yes, they were angels.  But did Abraham and Sarah know they were angels?  They walked in; they had dirty feet!  They ate food.  They looked for all the world like exactly what they were disguised as — three wandering nomads.  Very nice, one of the strangers made what seemed nothing more than a well-meaning – if naïve – blessing:  Next year may you have a child.  Of course she laughed.  She was almost ninety years old!  She was well past menopause, and even in her pre-menopausal years she had been unable to bear children.

Now, had she known it was an angel speaking, could there be any doubt that she would have accepted it?  Of course she would have believed the prophecy had she heard it the same way Abraham did.  That’s why he laughed in joy, while she laughed in disbelief.

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So now it all makes sense, right?  Abraham believed because he knew the message was from G-d, while Sarah rejected the message because she thought it was from humans.

So why, then was she criticized?  She had every reason to believe that the three fellows outside were a group of mortals who had no idea what they were talking about.  Would you believe it if a complete stranger told you that a miracle was going to occur?

The answer given by several commentaries is that Sarah was not taken to task for not believing the words of the stranger.  She was taken to task because she DISMISSED the words of the stranger.  A man came to her home and blessed her.  He wished her well.  He wished her very well.  He wished her miraculously well.  Why did she reject his blessing?

Yes, it was impossible for her to bear children without a miracle.  But she had seen miracles before!  Why shouldn’t she see them again?

G-d criticized her.  She was a great prophet; she should have known better!  “Why did Sarah laugh, saying: ‘Shall I really bear a child, since I am old?’ Is there anything beyond G-d’s ability?”  No one told you to believe it as an absolute fact — but why didn’t you answer “Amen”? Do you think I can’t do miracles?

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Life is full of “impossible” situations.  But we believe in miracles.  We pray for the sick, even the “hopelessly” sick.  Sick people get well, sometimes in spite of their doctors’ predictions.  Weak armies can defeat powerful enemies. (As in Chanukah) Sad stories sometimes have happy endings.

No, it doesn’t always work out as we’d like it to.  But we always have to maintain hope and faith that it will.  Or, at least, with G-d’s help, that it might!

May we always have reasons to laugh for joy.  (Did everyone out there say “Amen”?)

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES

“Sodom & Gomorrah… and Sandy” (2012)

It is easy to look at the pictures of the devastation and be reminded of this week’s Torah Portion’s story of the overturning of Sodom and Gomorrah.  After G-d was finished raining destruction on those cities, there was nothing left.  The Torah tells us that before the destruction, Sodom was a green and lush paradise.  After the destruction, it was a barren desert.

No doubt, there will be some who will glibly attribute the hurricane to …

Read more.

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 “A Prayer and an Opportunity” (2010)

… We, the People of Israel are a compassionate People.  We try to take care of our own.  And there they are, at synagogues and cemeteries, jingling change in their hands, and calling out, “Tzedokah, Tzedokah.” (Loosely – and incorrectly – translated as “Charity, Charity.”)

… It can be very disturbing.  It can even be annoying.  And this is what led to my dilemma two years ago.

I was praying at Rachel’s Tomb.  I had many things to pray for.  I was standing there, at that holy site, pouring out my heart to G-d.  I was reciting Psalms with a fervor that is difficult to match in other places.  I felt close to our Father in Heaven.

Then it happened.  A hand was thrust into my face, with a quick description of a difficult situation of an impoverished family… taking advantage of the opportunity to pray in this holy place.  I was inspired.  I was uplifted.  And this charity collector burst into my conversation with G-d and totally destroyed my concentration.  How dare he?!!

…Who was right, I pondered; the collector or me?… 

Read more.

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“Immaculate Deception?” (2009)

The world was a desolate place. Sodom  and Gomorrah had just been destroyed.  They were such dens of iniquity that G-d would no longer tolerate their existence.

But He didn’t destroy everyone…

Lot  and his two surviving daughters hid in a cave… They assumed, after the massive destruction they had just survived, that the entire human race had been wiped out… Lot’s daughters had to make a difficult decision…

Lot  now had two illegitimate sons/grandsons, who were the fathers of two nations who would, some day, be a source of problems to their cousins the Israelites.

They were illegitimate.  But why advertise it? …

Read more.

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 “Girl Talk?” (2007) 

Yose ben Yochanan says: “… don’t engage in too much conversation with the woman.” This was said about one’s own wife; all the more so does it apply to another’s wife.… the Sages said: “anyone who engages in too much conversation with women causes evil to himself, neglects Torah study, and will eventually inherit Gehinnom.  (The Hebrew term for … a very hot place!!)”

Not very politically correct!

This is, to say the very least, very difficult to understand.  The part about overdoing conversation with someone else’s wife is understandable.  Human nature being what it is, it is certainly wise for men and women who are not married to each other to set parameters as to how much friendly conversation is appropriate.  But what’s wrong with talking to your wife?…

Read more.

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 “What’s So Funny?”  (2006) 

… Two people hear the same prophecy.  Abraham laughs, and G-d says nothing.  Sarah laughs, and is criticized by G-d.  What’s the difference?  If Sarah is criticized for doubting the truth of the prediction, why isn’t Abraham?…

Read more.

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 “Would Abraham Give Candy to Trick-or-Treaters?” (2005) 

… You are a Sabbath-observing Jew.  You are taking a Shabbos afternoon stroll when a car pulls up next to you.  The driver, also Jewish, asks you for directions.  What do you do?…

What do you do?  Good manners would dictate that you politely tell the driver how to reach his destination.  Jewish Law, however, dictates that you may not assist another Jew in violating Jewish Law.   Should you say you don’t know how to get there?  You’re not allowed to lie.  What do you do??!!! …

Read more.

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“The Most Powerful Force on Earth” (2003) 

…Lot… moved to Sodom  to get away from his uncle Abraham.  He didn’t want to live near his uncle; Abraham was too . . . “religious.” …Lot …seems to have preferred the decadent lifestyle of his neighbors over the restrictive morals of his uncle’s home.  Given the choice of Jerusalem  vs. San Francisco, Lot  chose ‘Frisco! …

Read more.

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“Not Now, G-d, I’m Busy . . . I’ll Talk to You Later!” (2002) 

… You have been selected for a visit from the President of the United States…

“Forgive me, Mr. President. I have something to take care of.  Make yourself at home.  I’ll be back soon.”

You then proceed to run to your itinerant guests, waiting on them hand and foot while the President cools his heels and leafs through your wedding album.

You give them your best food to eat and your finest cigars to smoke.  All the while, the President stands there incredulously, flabbergasted by your audacious and outrageous behavior…

Read more.

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“Could the Twin Towers Have Been Saved?” (2001)

… At the risk of being controversial (who, me?) and politically incorrect, I would like to suggest that there seems to be Biblical precedent for the profiling of Arabs, expecting the worst.  After all, our cousins the Ishmaelites have been at war with us for thousands of years…

Read more .

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“Under the Influence of Dregs” (2000) 

… Sarah … was afraid that he would exert a negative influence over her son Isaac, whom G-d had designated as Abraham’s successor. “Send this maid and her son away, because this maid’s son will NOT share the inheritance with my son Isaac!”

Abraham was distressed by his wife’s suggestion. “My son Ishmael?” he must have asked. “How can I send him away? Who will teach him the right way to live if not I?”

Abraham lost the argument…

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at TorahTalk.org. Copyright © 2000-2012 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on November 9, 2006 at 11:56 am  Comments (1)  

One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I enjoy your e-mails greatly. I’m sure this won’t gpo to your head, as you’ve heard it many times before.

    I have a confession. You ended the article “What’s so funny” as follows:
    No, it doesn’t always work out as we’d like it to. But we always have to maintain hope and faith that it will. Or, at least, with G-d’s help, that it might!

    May we always have reasons to laugh for joy. (Did everyone out there say “Amen”?)

    I did not say “Amen”. But I did laugh out loud at your question!

    Be well

    Moshe Schorr


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