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Sarah's Laughter: The Blame Game

By: Rav Uri Cohen

Mandy says there are two sorts of people in the world: those who blame everyone else and those who blame only themselves. I place myself in a third category: among those who know where blame really lies.

Ella Enchanted<1>

It doesn't seem fair. When told they would have a son together, both Avraham and Sarah laughed. Yet it looks like Sarah was blamed for it, while Avraham got away with it. Why the difference? As we shall see, the standard approach suggests that they laughed in two different ways, while the out-of-the-box approach rereads the story so that their laughter was similar and it was actually Avraham who was blamed.

Let's briefly review the two stories. The first appears near the end of Parashat Lekh Lekha:

And God said to Abraham, "As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her." Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed (vayitzchak), 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?" And Abraham said to God, "O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!" God said, "Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac (Yitzchak); and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come."<2>

The second story appears soon afterwards, near the beginning of Parashat Vayera, when three angels in disguise had a conversation with Avraham:

They said to him, "Where is your wife Sarah?" And he replied, "There, in the tent." Then one said, "I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!" Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him. Now Sarah and Abraham were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. And Sarah laughed (vatitzchak) to herself, saying, "Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?" Then the Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah 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 time next year, and Sarah shall have a son." Sarah lied, saying, "I did not laugh," for she was frightened. But He replied, "You did laugh."<3>

Assuming that God's question "Why did Sarah laugh" was a criticism of Sarah's laughter, was God being unfair? The standard answer in the classic commentaries is that Avraham's laughter reflected wonder and joy, while Sarah's laughter reflected incredulousness and scorn.<4> Since the verb in both cases is the same (vayitzchak and vatitzchak), what is the basis of this answer? Presumably it works backwards: since God is fair and just,<5> His choosing to criticize Sarah but not Avraham must mean that there was indeed a difference. The two laughs may have appeared the same on the surface, but God knows our true motivations, whether we ourselves know them or not.

Furthermore, Avraham's laughter was a response to God's first announcement that Sarah would give birth to Yitzchak (Chap. 17). Assuming that in between the two stories, Avraham came home and told Sarah, this means that the announcement from the three angels was the second time she heard the news. Her laughing response to that must have been an expression of disbelief.<6>

The problem with this approach is that it presents God as blaming Sarah not by talking to her directly, but by confronting Avraham. Why would God do that? It's not as if only Avraham was on a high enough level to speak with God; if anything, the midrash says that Sarah was on a higher prophetic level than Avraham!<7> Besides, in the other examples in Sefer Bereisheet where God confronts a person with a rhetorical question,<8> it is always addressed to the person directly, because the purpose is to encourage them to confess and take responsibility for their mistake. Accordingly, it would be strange for God to confront Avraham with Sarah's mistake. God wants to keep married couples together, not drive them apart!

This problem is resolved by an out-of-the-box approach which does not appear in the classic commentaries. I came up with it a while ago, and I was happy to see recently that Rabbi Jonathan Mishkin did so as well, formulating it especially well.<9> Here it is in his words:

On the other hand, it is possible that the declaration by the visitors is the first that Sarah hears about her impending pregnancy.<10> Why didn't Abraham tell her? Maybe the news was so fantastic that he didn't want to get her hopes up – just in case it really did prove too impossible for a 90-year-old woman to have a baby. Maybe Abraham feared his wife would react with disbelief, and kept the information from her to avoid her scorn.<11> Later, Sarah's laughter is one of genuine surprise just like Abraham's was. Then, when "the Lord said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?'" God is also asking Abraham why he didn't tell Sarah the news earlier, so that now she is reacting with shock? Is it, God demands, because you doubted My ability to keep this promise, or did you in fact doubt Sarah's level of belief? "Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?" This interpretation of the story explains why God attacks Abraham for Sarah's laughter – if she is really at fault, why not confront her directly? After all, Sarah isn't saved any embarrassment by God revealing to Abraham what Sarah inwardly thought. Perhaps Sarah's lie is not in defense of herself but of her husband.<12>

In other words, God's question to Avraham was a criticism of Avraham, not Sarah. When she heard it, "she was frightened" of the consequences for her husband, so she bravely lied in order to protect him. But Avraham soberly replied, "You did laugh" – and I take full responsibility for my mistake in not telling you.<13>

The apparent lack of fairness in the story has bothered readers of Bereisheet since time immemorial.<14> For some, the standard approach solves the problem. For others, the out-of-the-box approach is more satisfying.

NOTES

1. Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted (NY: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 180. The writer is Ella.

2. Bereisheet 17:15-19, as translated by the JPS Tanakh.

3. Ibid. 18:9-15, as translated by the JPS Tanakh.

4. Rashi on Bereisheet 17:17, s.v. vayipol.

5. Tehillim 92:16: "God is straightforward... there is no injustice in Him."

6. Abarbanel on Bereisheet, Chap. 18.

7. Shemot Rabba 1:1.

8. Adam is asked (3:9-11), "Where are you?. . . Have you eaten from the tree which I told you not to?" Chavah is asked (3:13), "What have you done?" Kayin is asked (4:9), "Where's your brother?"

9. I like Rabbi Mishkin's formulation better than that of Professor Sharon Pace, whose book has a harsher presentation of the out-of-the-box approach. See Sharon Pace Jeansonne, The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar's Wife (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), p. 24. Compare also the formulation of Rabbi Yaakov Fogelman: "Maybe [Avraham] was called to task for not truly inspiring Sarah with faith." This appeared in his parashah publication, The Jerusalem Jewish Voice, in the Vayera issue. http://www.israelvisit.co.il/top/vayera.htm

10. Ramban agrees that Avraham had not told Sarah (though Ramban does not follow up with the out-of-the-box approach, as Rabbi Mishkin does). He presents two explanations for this. One is that Avraham had been so busy dealing with the commandment to circumcise himself and the men in his household, he hadn't had time to tell Sarah anything. The other explanation is that Avraham assumed that God would tell Sarah directly, and that he shouldn't spoil it by telling her himself.

11. Rabbi Yosef Sorotzkin presents a variation of this explanation: "It seems to me that Avraham knew that Sarah would have trouble believing it – as indeed happened – and he reasoned that there would be a better chance of her believing if she got the news directly [from God]." See Rabbi Sorotzkin, Megged Yosef (Jerusalem, 2009), Vol. 1, p. 81 (my translation). http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=51116&pgnum=91

12. Rabbi Jonathan Mishkin, "Parashat Vayera: Take My Son... Please," The Virtual Beit Midrash. http://vbm-torah.org/archive/intparsha/bereishit/04-59vayera.doc

13. Accordingly, the translation should not be "He replied" but "he replied."

14. The Chafetz Chaim was very disturbed that the Torah seems to tell a story whose details make Sarah look bad. For his solution, see Chafetz Chaim al HaTorah, p. 32, the bottom half of the page (http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=38071&pgnum=46). Much earlier, according to the Gemara (Megillah 9a), when 72 rabbis were commissioned by King Ptolemy to translate the Torah into Greek, they were concerned about the king's reaction to the apparent unfairness, so they rewrote the story, changing the word bekirbah (to herself) so that it read bikroveha (among her relatives). This avoided the king's anger, but at what cost?

 

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