Email Shiur Lech Lecha
Toward the end of this week’s Parsha, we read of G-d’s command to Avram to undergo a brit milah, at which time his name would be changed to Avraham and his wife Sarai’s to Sarah. G-d then continues, promising Avraham that he and Sarah will witness the birth of a son, who will be his true descendant and heir. Avraham’s reaction to this news is a simple and natural one. He laughs, and modestly suggests that Yishmael fulfill that particular role. G-d, of course, dismisses the suggestion and repeats that this child, who will carry forth Avaraham’s message to the world, will be borne by Sarah, and will be named Yitzhak.
Despite the significance of this announcement for the future of Am Yisrael, it would most likely pass unremarked upon were it not for the parallel story, told at the beginning of next week’s Parsha, VaYerah, of Sarah’s reaction to the same news. There we read of three lowly travelers who avail themselves of Avraham’s hospitality during their journey. These men, who we know in fact to be angels, inform Avraham, within earshot of Sarah, that a son will be born to them. Sarah’s reaction is a simple and natural one. She laughs. Yet the reaction here is very different. G-d rebukes Sarah, asking Avraham how Sarah could doubt His ability to perform such a thing. The question is unavoidable. Why were these two similar reactions on the part of Avraham and Sarah met with such a different response from HaShem?
(It is worth noting that Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, the Ralbag, sees in the first half of the story a clear moral, totally independent of the contrasting responses to Avraham and Sarah. The Ralbag is unique in his approach to Parshanut, dividing his commentary into three distinct parts, a simple explanation of words, an explanation of the story, and finally observations upon the moral lessons that may be drawn from each parsha (with a small p) in the Torah. The moral here is to be uncomfortable with the good, which HaShem has bestowed upon us, and to see ourselves as undeserving of further good. This is in order to tame our desire for more and more. Here, Avraham in fact rejects G-d’s offer, asking only that Yishmael prove worthy of the mission that Avraham has begun and that G-d plans for Yitzhak to continue. This reaction, the ultimate manifestation of the Ralbag’s message of self control to the point of self-abnegation.)
The question that we raised is first addressed by the Targum Onkelos, who distinguishes between two forms of laughter, one of joy and happiness, and the other of skepticism. When Avraham hears the news, he laughs with joy, unable to conceal his happiness and amazement at the news. Is it truly possible that he and Sarah will be parents at such an advanced age? Sarah on the other hand, is skeptical. How could it be that after she has passed menopause that she will become pregnant? And with an elderly husband to boot! Rashi adopts this approach, as does the Ramban, the Ralbag and many others.
The Ramban expands on this theme, extrapolating the laughter outward. Laughter accompanies good news, and when people share glad tidings they often laugh together in joy. Hence, Avraham’s laughter, and Sarah’s wry comment after the birth of Yitzhak (21:6) that people will laugh at her, are manifestations of this phenomenon. Avraham laughs with joy; after all is this not such amazing, unexpected news? How else could he react? Sarah, however, is unconvinced.
The problem with this approach is that it is unclear why we should differentiate between the laughter of Avraham and the laughter of Sarah. The passukim themselves, beyond telling us of the different reaction from HaShem, don’t offer much of a hint. Further, as Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch points out, throughout Tanach we do not find the distinction between different types of laughter that the Targum suggests. Instead, laughter is always associated with a tinge of denial or skepticism over the event that has inspired the laughter.
The Ohr HaChaim suggests that, in fact, there was no difference between the reaction of Avraham and Sarah, and their laughter was a function of joy. However, there is a major difference in the way that the news of the upcoming birth was sent. HaShem merely tells Avraham about His plans, prompting Avraham to react with joy and amazement. After all, does not his and Sarah’s advanced age preclude such an event? But Sarah’s receiving the news is accompanied by another event, namely the return of her menstrual cycle after many years of menopause. Hence her failure to express joy prior to this event can be interpreted as a lack of faith in HaShem. Why was it necessary for her to experience a physical revival prior to expressing her joyousness?
The Kli Yakar suggests that Sarah did not doubt that HaShem could cause her to become pregnant. Rather, she was skeptical about the lomg term implications. How, at such an advanced age, would she and Avraham succeed in living long enough to properly raise Yitzhak? While it was true that she had already experienced the miracle of her returning youth, she had seen no parallel signs of returned youth in Avraham. Perhaps he would not merit such a miracle? After all, he had already been amply rewarded for his faith in HaShem. This then was the lack of faith that she exhibited
While these approaches avoids the problem of the dual nature of laughter, and even if we are willing to dismiss Rav Hirsch’s insistence that laughter is associated with denial, the Ohr HaChaim and the Kli Yakar are problematic from a different perspective. The Ohr HaChaim suggests that Sarah laughed after she began to menstruate. This is consistent with the Midrash quoted by Rashi (17:16), that she began to menstruate when Hashem first spoke to Avraham and informed him of the impending birth of Yitzhak. However, the simple reading of the passuk (18:12) seems to imply that she is expressing her skepticism, asking rhetorically if she will again return to the pleasures of youth. After all both she and Avraham are aged!
The Akeidat Yitzhak adopts the exact opposite approach. Rather than absolving Avraham of blame, he believes that Avraham was guilty of expressing skepticism of HaShem’s abilities no less than Sarah was. The only reason that he escaped censure was that G-d did not wish to “fashtair” the simcha, to detract from the excitement of the moment. This would not be unprecedented, as we know that at the time of Matan Torah, the leaders of Am Yisrael failed to behave in accordance with the gravity of the occasion, but nonetheless escaped immediate punishment so as not to detract from Maamad Har Sinai. (See Shemot 24:10-11). Here, too, Hashem withholds criticism until a more appropriate moment. And that moment is not long in coming.
When HaShem chastises Sarah, he does so in a seemingly peculiar fashion. Rather than confronting Sarah directly, he complains to Avraham. Why was it necessary to involve Avraham? Surely G-d could have rebuked Sarah himself! The Baal HaAkeida suggests that by speaking to Avraham, HaShem sends a message to Avraham. You, too, says HaShem, are guilty of the same crime. Just as Sarah was wrong to express skepticism, so were you.
This approach answers all our questions. There is only one type of laughter, one that expresses skepticism, and Avraham and Sarah are equally guilty. Others, however, seem to shy away from this approach, perhaps because the parallel in punishment between Avraham and Sarah seems a bit forced. And, after all, it was specifically HaShem’s reaction that had triggered our initial question.
I would like to conclude with Rav Hirsch. While Rav Hirsch does not address our question, he opens a door on the idea of laughter. Laughter is, as a rule, triggered by observing something unexpected, something absurd or contradictory. The reaction of Avraham and Sarah is a reaction to the absurdity of the suggestion that a nation could arise from two elderly people in such circumstances. This reaction is almost instinctive, despite the trust and emunah that they have in Hashem.
This sense of absurdity is one that has accompanied us as a people from our very beginnings until this day. Always counted out, always a minority, we have somehow managed to not only survive but to thrive. Our very existence is in fact an absurdity, understandable only through our relationship with G-d, and His love for us. And that’s a reason to laugh for joy.