Several times a day I find myself laughing out loud. Sometimes it’s because I find something funny or genuinely joyful. Other times I give a chuckle as an acknowledgement of something someone has said. And then there are those times you might hear me guffaw out of a sense of incredulity.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:10-15), tells the story of Abraham’s and Sarah’s visitors, one of whom informs her that within a year she will bear a child. The Torah comments that Abraham and Sarah were advanced in years, and that Sarah had already stopped menstruating. Sarah laughs to herself, incredulous that she could conceive at her age. In the next passage God appears (for the first time), challenging Sarah’s disbelief. Sarah lies, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was frightened. God replies, “You did laugh.”
In the previous week’s parsha (Genesis 17:15-19), God commands Abraham to change his wife’s name from Sarai to Sarah and then informs him that Sarah will bear a child. Abraham laughs, and challenges God, asking how it could be possible for Sarah to give birth at the age of 90. And yet, according to the commentaries, God finds Abraham’s laughter joyful, while Sarah’s laughter is suspect. Is this a case of gender imbalance? Certainly, I would suggest, it reflects a wide chasm between the experiences of aging men and women.
The commentaries have much to say about Sarah’s reaction — ranging from a focus on the physical limitations of bearing a child in her old age, to the difficulty of raising a child as a nonagenarian, to the ridicule she might face for being an elderly pregnant woman. The Torah places an important value on being elderly. Leviticus 19:32 reminds us to rise before the aged and show deference to those who are old. In Exodus 3:16 God commands Moses to gather the elders and tells him to take note of them. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Elders) opens with Moses receiving the Torah at Sinai and transmitting it to Joshua who transmits it to the elders.
And Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah (Torah Study 6:9), talks about the importance of rising for the elderly, even if they aren’t great scholars.
But in our current era, somehow, valuing those with longevity and extensive life experience — especially women — has been lost.
I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with women of all ages concerned about growing old. We share fears about our families, our communities and our health, and conversations about the impact of growing older on our career trajectory and options. I remember some years ago discussing with a friend how worried I was that I had hit a professional wall. After being at the same job for a decade, there was not much room for professional growth. I was nervous that my job opportunities would be limited, especially without additional skills and experiences.
Though I recognized that I was coming from a place of privilege, I worried that as my age was creeping up, a growing focus on youth and young leadership meant possible career opportunities would dry up entirely. If job openings weren’t geared towards younger folks, they asked for the kind of experience that would block women who joined the workforce or made career changes later in life, either because they spent the previous years raising children or because those opportunities didn’t yet exist. At the time there was a serious shortage of female role models.
My friend gave me the best pep talk, reassuring me that I had more skills and experience than I gave myself credit for. She urged me to go after new positions that reflected more fully those skills and experiences. Feeling quite incredulous about her optimism and sense of assuredness, I laughed.
Fast forward a decade. Opportunities arose and I was able to make a leap in my own career trajectory. I am so gratified and encouraged when I look around at the many accomplished women who came into their own later in life.
Sometimes laughter plays the role of a loud sigh of relief and the realization that nothing for women — of any age — is impossible.
The recent passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg serves as a stark reminder that age is not a barrier, especially for women. She was appointed to the Supreme Court when she was 60 years old, an age where women are expected to wind down their careers, not to build on their successes. Though she was entitled to, imagine if she would have passed on the opportunity, or worse, had she been passed over for the opportunity because of her age!
Women are still pushing boundaries and continue to chip away at the glass ceiling. This is true in virtually every career path, but is especially true in fields that normally had not been seen as “feminine,” such as STEM or politics, or positions that are difficult for women to attain, such as C-suite roles, and, as evidenced by JOFA’s advocacy work, clergy and leadership positions in many Orthodox institutions.
We know, from our own Torah study, Sarah was destined for greatness. But she had no idea of the important place she would hold in our history, nor did she have any sense at what age she would be thrust into playing this pivotal role. Women in recent generations also could not have predicted where they would end up, nor what possibilities would be open to them. Some might have laughed at the dreams women who were pioneers in their professions possessed.
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And to this I want to add one more kind of laughter – Sarah’s and our own. It is the laughter of resilience in the face of the obstacles that confront us. Because sometimes laughter plays the role of a loud sigh of relief and the realization that nothing for women — of any age — is impossible.
Daphne Lazar Price is executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. For more Torah perspectives, read the JOFA blog.
Friday, Nov. 6
Cheshvan 19, 5781
Light Candles at 4:28 pm
Saturday, Nov. 7
Torah Reading: Vayeira (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24)
Haftarah:Kings II 4:1-37
Shabbat Ends 5:27 pm