How many female CEOs do you think there are in the S&P 500? Twenty-two. Why is that when we live in an age of equality? In fact, there are more female university graduates than men! So why so few in the top leadership positions?
In Parshat Vayera, our patriarch Yitzchak receives his name on account of the laughter engendered by his parents at the news of his birth. After all, Sarah and Avraham were ninety and one hundred years old respectively, so to think they would now have a child after all these years! Their reaction was LOL!!
Let’s take a look at the two episodes when they laughed.
In Parshat Lech Lecha, “Hashem said unto Avraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and I will give you a son from her; indeed, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.’ Then Avraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?!’
Contrast that story with Parshat Vayera, when Sarah overhears the angels tell Avraham that she will give birth to a boy in a year’s time. “And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: ‘After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my husband being old also?’ And Hashem said to Avraham: Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I then bear a child, when I am old?’ Is anything beyond Hashem?! At the set time I will return to you, when the season comes around, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, ‘I didn’t laugh’; for she was afraid. And he said, ‘No, you did indeed laugh.’”
Why was Sarah criticized for laughing? Avraham also laughed when he heard the crazy news! Our sages explain that Avraham’s laugh was a laugh of joy and excitement about the news; whereas when Sarah laughed it was because she didn’t believe it.
This explanation seems very puzzling. Why is Avraham’s laugh considered to be a true laugh of joy while Sarah’s laugh is considered a laugh of sarcasm and disbelief? It would seem that we should draw the exact opposite conclusion. Sarah was justified for laughing incredulously — after all, she heard the news from some Arab wayfarers, or at best, angels. But Avraham?!? He heard from Hashem Himself — he should have been the one criticized for laughing!
The story gets even more confusing when Hashem confronts Avraham and asks why Sarah laughed. She is subsequently chided by Avraham and she denies it “because she was afraid.” Why did Hashem ask Avraham about Sarah’s laughter? Why did she deny laughing? What was she afraid of?
In Lean In, Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg explains that men get all the top CEO positions simply because they apply for them. It doesn’t matter whether their skills and education match the requirements of the job. They believe they can do it and will talk their way through the front door and into the position. A woman wouldn’t even apply if her skills and education didn’t exactly fit the description. Why not? Because women and men think differently. Men believe they are capable of doing anything. Women, however, are more cautious about seeking new challenges and taking risks.
When Hashem tells Avraham that they will give birth to a son, he jumps for joy, believing that anything is achievable no matter the odds. By contrast, Sarah hears the news and is filled with doubt about herself and her husband. “Seriously?!” she thinks. “That’s totally unrealistic. There’s no way.”
When Hashem asks Avraham “Why is Sarah laughing?” He is asking him: Why doesn’t your wife know? Why doesn’t your wife believe in herself? Have you told her how beautiful she looks? How incredibly talented she is? Sarah, of course, denies laughing. She’s not ready to share her insecurities with Avraham. She is afraid to share her deepest feelings with him, lest he see the truth that she is indeed an old woman.
Chazal explain Avraham’s laughter as an overly confident reaction to the news of Yitzchak’s birth, while Sarah’s reaction was more realistic. While Avraham had dreams of converting the world to monotheism, Sarah was the one to keep it real. Avraham was about roaming the earth, Sarah was about inviting the people into their open tent. She was the practical one.
According to Kabbalah, men emanate from the supernal sefirah of Chochmah, while women emanate from Binah. Chochmah comes from the combination of two words — koach mah, meaning ‘the strength of what?’ Men may have great dreams but they often need grounding and a realistic perspective. That comes from the Binah provided by women. Marriage requires both of these complementary aspects. And together, a husband and wife can accomplish incredible things, as long as they’re looking to complement one another and build the other one’s confidence and self-esteem.
Hashem was Avraham and Sarah’s marriage counselor, so to speak. Chazal — far from being chauvinist, G-d forbid — utilize this story to teach us how men and women react differently. If you desire an incredible marriage, you need to know that ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.’ All too often, the world around tries to convince us that we are exactly the same and that equality means homogeneity. Men and women are biologically different and emotionally different. Only once you understand your strengths and weaknesses and your spouse’s strengths and weaknesses will you be able to achieve perfection together, whether you are the dreamer or the realist of the couple!