What Was So Funny?


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 4:17 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 18:1-22:24
Haftarah: 5:17 p.m.
Havdalah: II Kings 4:1-37

Abraham was blessed, “crowned” through his wife, Sarah, say Midrashim. We know this because when Abraham was distressed by Sarah’s insistence that he banish Hagar and Ishmael (for his mockery of Isaac), God tells Abraham to “listen to her voice.” Sarah, Rashi explains, was Abraham’s superior in prophecy.

What knowledge did Sarah possess that Abraham did not?

Over the long, disappointing years of her barrenness, Sarah learned to make do. She introduced her maid, Hagar, as a concubine into her relationship with Abraham. Sarah sacrificed her own happiness so that he, at least, could be a father. However, as soon as Hagar becomes pregnant, Hagar tries to usurp Sarah. The arrangement was not working.

When the three visiting angels remind Abraham that Sarah will have a boy, the communication is to Abraham, not to Sarah. While it would have been natural for a prospective father to share the good news with his wife, Sarah learns the news by eavesdropping.

The parents-to-be receive the news with laughter, but their laughter is deflected and internalized. Laughter is often a mechanism for giving vent to a whole complex of ambivalent feelings. Sarah’s internal laughter may have been the actual wave of physiological change coursing through her entire being, to which God was trying to alert Abraham, when he asked, “Why did Sarah laugh?”

Sarah had not been told of anything until the miracle flowered within her, and therefore was not required to believe anything in the abstract. Her laughter, far from a lack of faith, expressed fulfillment of the news God wished to communicate to Abraham: that the miraculous aspect of the promise, his wife’s rejuvenation, inextricably linked to the miracle of resurrection, was taking place within Sarah at that moment. Sarah’s laughter revealed not her disbelief in God’s ability to do miracles but her embarrassed identification with it.

While this elderly couple believed that God can do anything, both of them doubt that their aging partner is capable of anything new. Sarah has opened up and regained her youth, but has noted no equivalent change in Abraham. Since Ishmael had been born ten years before, Abraham had no more children with young Hagar, why should he be overwhelmed by Sarah’s regained attractions?

Abraham’s primary passion, as his name implies, is fatherhood, and it was amply supplied by Ishmael. At that time, his son by Hagar was the “love of his life,” whose interests he needed to protect. God says, “But Sarah, your wife, is about to bear you a son.”

Sarah gives birth to Yitzhak (Isaac), “he will laugh.” The theme of laughter as negativity continues when Ishmael shoots arrows at the child, claiming it was just play. But Sarah’s reaction is swift and unflinching, demanding that Abraham expel both mother and son, hurting Abraham deeply.

According to the Or HaChaim, Abraham’s misguided sympathy for the other at the expense of his own reshaped the very nature of the Akeidah, the “Binding of Isaac,” for which Sarah (and not Isaac) paid the ultimate price. Hearing the news that Abraham found it in his heart to slaughter Isaac, Sarah died in a spiral of pure negation, never knowing whether Isaac and her life’s mission had been lost forever.

The Or HaChaim, quoting the Kabbalah, says that at the Akeidah the souls of both Sarah and Isaac left their bodies. Through an exchange, Sarah’s soul and the additional years she had to live, and her perception of the darker elements of history, gained reentry into Yitzhak’s body, and Rifkah, Yitzhak’s soul-mate, was born. As far as the simple text is concerned, Sarah was the first Jewish mother to die believing her only son was slaughtered. Like countless future Sarahs, she died in doubt and darkness, not knowing whether there was anyone left.

Shlomo Carlebach once told me that “Eshet Chayil” (Proverbs 31:10-31, “Woman of Valor”), which Jewish husbands sing to their wives on Friday night, was originally composed by Abraham for Sarah after her death.

To Sarah, Abraham sings an eternal love song, for he knows, as she does not, that an angel intervened to save her son. He tries to comfort her with a different perspective: Sarah, here identified with the Shekhinah, “has no fear of the snow for her household.” The Shekhinah can afford to laugh, as Sarah (the woman) could not, at threats to the Jewish future.

“Her light does not go out by night” [Prov. 31:9]. In the night of the Akeidah; in the flames of the Temple’s destruction; in the deeper night of exile, pogroms, and crematoria, “her light will not go out.” So Sarah, the mother who dies bewildered and bereaved, merged with the light of the Shekhinah. 

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” is now available in an Amazon Kindle edition.