Parshat Vayera: The Laughter of Infinite Possibility

“Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the Lord, (Bereshit 18,13).

From Groucho Marx to Jon Stuart, Billy Crystal to my favorite Jerry Seinfeld, Jews have always been prominent in the landscape of American comedy. With so many famous Jewish comedians, I can’t help but wonder if there is a deeper connection with Jews and laughter. Is it that a good laugh heals a lot of hurt (which we’ve had plenty of over our history), or is there more to it?

Maybe laughter can be holy. Rebbe Nachman teaches us that joy is so important in our spiritual lives that one should even engage in silliness to lift one’s spirits. This week’s parsha gives us a unique opportunity to explore laughter, which has much to teach us about ourselves, and even about God.

Let’s go back to the end of last week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, when God promises Avraham that he and Sara will have a child together. Avraham’s response:

“Avraham  threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?” (Bereshit 17,17).

God answers Avraham with a reiteration of the promise, and then adds that Avraham will call him Yitzhak, a name that means laughter. This seems to illustrate God’s approval of Avraham’s response.

Yet in this week’s parsha, while Avraham and Sara are visited by three angels, the promise of Sara giving birth is repeated. Sara’s response is seemingly identical:

“And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old” (Bereshit 18,12).

Unlike Avraham, Sara is reprimanded for her laugh, either by the angel, or by God. 

“Why did Sara laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?”

Why is Sara reprimanded for laughing, while Avraham is praised?

Psychologists have looked into the question of what causes laughter, and they’ve come up with several theories. Two of these theories of laughter are called The Superiority Theory and The Incongruity Theory.

The Superiority Theory sees all laughter as the result of one person demeaning another. This is the laughter of mockery, when that special someone points their finger and laughs at you because you didn’t notice the egg on your shirt before you ran out the door this morning. 

But the Incongruity Theory of laughter posits that laughter comes from being presented with fundamentally incongruent or incompatible concepts. Think of the YouTube video of the dog who can use a gold club and sink a long putt. The unexpected nature of the act, as well as its seeming impossibility, awakens a sudden response of laughter. 

So back to our story. When God tells Avraham that he and Sara will have a child together, even though he would be 100, and she would be 90, Avraham’s laughter is the laughter of incongruity; what he’s being told flies in the face of his human experience and his understanding of nature. And it is exactly that incongruity that brings him to the floor in laughter. 

But Sara’s laughter is the laughter of superiority. Her understanding of her body and the way in which children are born does not support the angel’s claim. Her laugh implies that she knows the rules better than God, as if God is naive or misinformed. And therefore she is chastised:  Is anything too wondrous for the Lord? 

Despite the criticism that Sara receives from God, we should not read God’s rebuke of Sara as too heavy-handed. For how would Sara know that God could do miracles? The birth of Yitzchak is the first appearance of a miracle which breaks the rules of nature. No one knew that such a miracle was possible, so why should Sara be blamed; instead we can read this as a teaching moment for Sara and for all of us. And in the end, we see that Sara hears the message. During Yitzchak’s brit milah and naming, listen to what Sara says:

“God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me. And she added, “Who would have said to Avraham That Sara would suckle children! Yet I have borne a son in his old age.”

Here Sara laughs the laughter of incongruity, together with Avraham, illustrating that she has internalized the message that nothing is beyond the Divine. 

The physical world is a world of cause and effect, or logic, of action, and of outcome. But it’s also a world which holds the possibility for the unexpected and for the seeming impossible. The laughter of Avraham teaches us that Hashem’s presence can be experienced through the seemingly absurd and illogical. God can break the rules of nature, and the best response to the unexpected is an open-hearted laugh.

Dedicated to the complete recovery of Ilana bat Amouma and in memory of Bracha bat Yona

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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