It was a replay of countless meetings I’ve participated in. Three angels disguised as ordinary travellers “happen” to visit Avraham. Eventually one of the visitors tells Avraham that his wife, Sarah, will bear him a child in exactly one year. Sarah overhears the conversation from behind the curtain. She is ninety years old, not exactly child-bearing age, and so she laughs to herself. Hashem asks Avraham why Sarah would laugh. Does she believe that this is a task too difficult for Hashem? Hashem reconfirms what the angel said: Next year at this time Sarah will bear a child.

So far so good, but now comes the verse that sounds like it came from every weekly status meeting I ever attended [Bereishit 18:15]: “Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ because she was afraid. And He said, ‘No, but you laughed.’”. I told the customer about that feature! No you didn’t. Yes I did. And to make things more meeting-like, we’re not even sure who’s doing the talking. Notice that I have capitalized the word “He”, meaning that it was Hashem who was chastising Sarah. But perhaps the word should be simply “he”, meaning that it was Avraham who was chastising Sarah? Maybe it was the angel? Or maybe it was my boss who snuck into the room undetected as people were yelling back and forth?

And what is the outcome of our shouting match? The Talmud in Tractate Zevachim [102a] teaches that Hashem’s anger always leaves a lasting mark. It seems clear that Hashem is angry with Sarah, and yet we never hear that Sarah is punished. Even after Hashem confronts her directly, there is no real closure.

When we review the entire story, things begin to completely unravel. At the end of last week’s Parasha, Parashat Lech Lecha, Hashem, in a conversation with Avraham, changes Sarah’s name from “Sarai” to “Sarah”. Hashem then tells Avraham that Sarah will bear him a child. Avraham is overjoyed and he laughs[1]. The conversation ends and the next thing Avraham does is to circumcise himself and his family, just as Hashem commanded. Immediately afterwards the Torah segues to the story of Avraham and the traveler-angels. How much time transpired between the two stories? The Torah does not say, but Rashi does. Rashi, quoting the Talmud from Tractate Bava Metziah [86b], teaches that this visit occurred exactly three days after Avraham’s circumcision[2]. Let’s assume that Rashi is correct, and the angels visited Avraham three days after his circumcision. The fact that Sarah laughed when she overheard the angel means that this was the first time she had heard the news. It means that Avraham had not yet told her that she would have a child. If so, then Avraham must not yet have told her that Hashem had changed her name, either. Why the secrecy? Could it be that Avraham and Sarah did not speak to each other for three full days? The Torah refutes this hypothesis. When Avraham invites the three traveler-angels inside the tent, he runs to tell Sarah “Hurry, knead some flour and make cakes!” What did Avraham call her? “Honey”? Or just plain “Hey, you”?

A comment from Rav J.B. Soloveichik, writing in “Family Redeemed”, can give us some insight. When the angels ask Avraham where Sarah is, they are actually scolding Avraham. They are asking him “Why is Sarah not here in the tent by your side? Why is she kept hidden?” Avraham’s answer is terse: She is in the tent. Hidden, like a precious jewel, but admittedly not an equal partner. Until this point, Avraham has been active and Sarah has been passive. Avraham travels to Israel. Sarah accompanies him. Avraham develops a relationship with the King of Egypt. Sarah is kidnapped and nearly raped. When Sarah has issues with her maidservant, Hagar, Avraham tells her [Bereishit 16:6] “She’s your maidservant, do what you want with her”. It’s not my problem. Rav Soloveichik explains that the angels were telling Avraham that Sarah must not be relegated to “the tent”. She must be a full partner. A man cannot lead without his wife. Judaism cannot exist without the concept of family. Indeed, while Avraham lives for thirty-eight years after Sarah’s death, he essentially exits the stage together with her. Without Sarah there is no Avraham.

Let’s continue down this path. When Hashem asks Avraham “Why did Sarah laugh at the angels?” He, too, is scolding Avraham. He is asking Avraham “Why did your wife not know she would have a child? Why did you not tell her? Did you not believe me?” I’d like to suggest a proof for this thesis: When the angels ask Avraham [Bereishit 18:9] “Where is Sarah, your wife?” the word “elav” – “[they said] to him” – have dots over three of the four letters[3]. Perhaps this is indicating that the while the angels are asking about Sarah, they are speaking to Avraham. He is the guilty party, not she.

Equipped with this approach, let’s revisit the final verse in the episode, Hashem’s confrontation with Sarah. The Torah writes “Sarah denied, saying… because she was afraid” Usually the word “saying” means “to tell someone”[4], as if to say “Tell someone that I didn’t laugh”. Who is this “someone”? It is clear that Sarah is not denying Hashem’s accusation that she laughed. She was fully aware that Hashem is omnipotent, and that she could not extricate herself out of this mess by simply lying. Years earlier Adam and Chava stood accused by Hashem and they tried to lie their way out of their mess, because they, too, were afraid. But that was then and this is now. Sarah was far too spiritually advanced for that kind of behavior. I suggest that Sarah didn’t want Avraham to know that she had laughed, and she was pleading with Hashem not to reveal her secret. Hashem will not play along and He tells her “No, but you laughed”. And that’s all right. You overheard some pagan nomad talking. You wouldn’t have laughed had Avraham told you what I told him three days ago. Yet for some reason he didn’t tell you. You cannot keep this to yourself. You and your husband must come to terms with this together. Your current relationship is one of secrets. If you are to lead a future nation, you must fully open your lines of communication. You must lead as one.

Rav Soloveichik, writing in “Out of the Whirlwind”, teaches that “Sarah was not only Avraham’s mate, but his comrade, as well. Sarah was his collaborator and co-participant in all the great plans, hopes, and visions. Together they discovered G-d. Together they discovered a new morality. Together they joined the covenant. In a word, Avraham and Sarah started the mesorah, the tradition.” Tradition has been the glue that has kept our people together over two thousand years of exile. Tradition was forged together by husband and wife, and tradition must be passed to the next generation together by husband and wife.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Nechemiah Uriel ben Tzipora Hadara

[1] We have discussed numerous times in the past why Avraham’s laughing was Kosher and Sarah’s was not. In short, Avraham “fell on his face and laughed”. He did so unabashedly. Sarah, on the other hand, stifled and even denied her laughing. Her “laugh” was more of a “scoff”. This year we’re going to take a different direction.

[2] According to the Talmud, Hashem at first wanted to let Avraham recover from the pain of his circumcision alone, so He had a hot desert wind blow. But when Hashem saw that Avraham craved his favourite mitzvah of entertaining guests, He sent the three angels.

[3] See Rashi for a Midrashic interpretation.

[4] The most common verse in the Torah is “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying”. The Ramban explains this as meaning “Hashem spoke to Moshe so that he should relay the communication to the rest of Am Yisrael.