The Power of Laughter

Our סדרה begins with a divine visitation, though how divine it was can depend on one’s background. For those of us educated in American Modern Orthodox schools where every מדרש is taught as the basic understanding of the פסוקים, we already know the story: Three heavenly angels approach Avraham in the form of men, each of them with a different task. First, one heals Avraham from the pains of his recent ברית מילה. Then, another one tells Avraham the wonderful news- he and Sarah will have a baby by that time next year. Sarah, listening to this conversation, laughs at what seems like an impossible prospect (though she shouldn’t have, because obviously the three angels weren’t joking). Then, she is challenged for her laughter, and our first matriarch seems to dig herself into deeper trouble by denying this. The מלאכים then go off towards סדום, and the rest is, as they say, history.

While our second grade version of פרשת וירא is definitely exciting, there is a lot that is difficult for us to understand about different details of the story. The biggest difficulty by far is in Sarah’s hasty reaction- why would she lie to G-d and tell Him that she didn’t laugh when she very clearly did?

In order to answer our questions and understand בראשית י”ח a little bit better, let us take away the layer of Midrashic interpretation and focus on the actual wording of the פסוקים:

Close your eyes and imagine that you are sitting on the Plains of Mamre and watching the events of פרשת וירא unfold. Avraham is sitting in front of his tent relaxing, when, all of the sudden, three men approach him. Avraham jumps into action and offers them food and drink, calling Sarah to prepare a feast. Then, sitting under the tree with Avraham, the men deliver a bizarre message:

(שוב אשוב אליך כעת חיה והנה בן לשרה אשתך” (בראשית יח:י”

By this time next year, Sarah will have had a baby, they proclaim. Sarah, who had been listening to this conversation from inside the tent (“ושרה שומעת מפתח האוהל”), can’t help but chuckle to herself (“ותצחק שרה בקרבה”). After all, she and Avraham are quite elderly and beyond their child-bearing capabilities, so this seemingly impossible prediction from random strangers who approached their tent seems quite ridiculous.

Then, G-d Himself enters the scene and demands of Avraham why Sarah laughed- after all, is it beyond G-d’s abilities to give them a child? Sarah, hearing this divine voice, panics (“ותכחש שרה”) and lies, saying she didn’t laugh.

So, we see the key difference between the פסוקים and the מדרש’s interpretation very much redeems Sarah from what many would accuse inappropriate scoffing. While Avraham may have had his suspicions that his visitors were beyond the natural, there was no reason that Sarah would know. Furthermore, Radak reminds us that Sarah was not lying at all- she only laughed quietly to herself. Perhaps Hashem’s questioning Avraham of the laughter helped prove to Sarah that He was in fact G-d and the visitors were angels, for after all, how could they have heard her silent chuckle unless they were supernatural.

This distinction helps highlight a revolutionary idea which I had never thought of until last week. As omniscient readers of the Torah, we know that every step of Sarah and Avraham’s eventful life was divinely inspired. We know that G-d commanded Avraham to leave Haran. We know that He appeared to him and promised him offspring. We also read firsthand of the crazy imagery of the ברית בין הבתרים, where Avraham is promised that his descendants will be prosperous, after they return from exile. We do, but Sarah didn’t necessarily. Until this point in פרשת וירא, Sarah had never personally encountered Hashem, and her whole belief in monotheism was purely based on what Avraham told her.

This is an incredible level of blind faith. Imagine Sarah, giving up everything she knew, following a G-d she had never seen down to Canaan then Egypt and Gerar, with the occasional fantastic tale from Avraham about the bright future of their non-existent descendants- about covenants, and sand and stars, and eventually controlling Canaan.

Nonetheless, nowhere in the פסוקים do we see any sign of Sarah having any doubt until here in פרשת וירא, where it may have finally been too much. The prospect of being told that she will have a child after she could no longer have one, after following the same G-d halfway across the known world and getting abducted and mistreated every step of the way, may have been too much for our matriarch. So, she silently laughed for a second. Only then does G-d suddenly appear to her, showing that her blind faith of so many years was true- there is one, all-powerful G-d, and He will grant her a baby.

We may be tempted to look down on Sarah’s apparent breach of faith- it seems as if G-d isn’t impressed with her laughter, and, according to Chizkuni, this is the source for why women are not allowed to provide testimony in Jewish courts. But, I don’t believe that this is the case.

One year later, lo and behold, Avraham and Sarah have a baby. They name him Yitzchak something which G-d had previously commanded Avraham to do, after his joyous laughter in פרשת לך-לך. However, I believe it is clear that Yitzchak is also named after Sarah’s more doubtful laughter, to teach us an important lesson in faith.

We live in a world where it is often difficult to see Hashem’s hand. We have goals which we are desperately trying to accomplish, but seem impossibly out of reach. Sometimes, at our lowest points, we even scoff at the possibility that we can ever get where we need to be. It is at this time that we must remember Yitzchak, who symbolizes G-d’s ability to do the impossible. If we really think about the emotions of פרשת וירא, the pain and despair that lead to “ותצחק שרה בקרבה,” which eventually became the joy and fulfillment of “צחוק עשה לי אלקים,” we too will ask ourselves; “היפלא ממני דבר,” and will realize that, with G-d’s help, anything is possible.

In the past months, the Jewish people have suffered much tragedy and seemingly bad luck. A few months ago, we lost three teenage boys, and, more recently, two of our holy brethren, including a three-month-old baby, were brutally murdered by Islamic terrorists. The past two weeks have seen three terrorist attacks in and around our eternal capital of Jerusalem. Over 40 percent of the Jewish people still live outside of Israel, exposed to the even worse dangers of Anti-Semitic attacks and assimilation, and with recent beheadings and murders by radical Islamist terrorists in the seemingly safer United States and Canada, things are quite dangerous all around.

At a time like this, it is quite easy to lose hope, without any clear solution in the near future. It is now, when all seems lost, we must turn to our forefather Yitzchak. Yitzchak’s birth symbolizes hope when all seems lost, the power of blind faith, and G-d’s ability to turn skepticism into pure joy. If we focus on this, do the proper השתדלות, and open our hearts up to Hashem, then, with His help, we will see an end to our suffering with the coming of the גאולה, very very soon.

About the Author
Born and raised in Teaneck NJ, Tzvi Silver moved to Israel in 2012 after catching aliyah fever while learning abroad. Tzvi is now pursuing a degree in Engineering from the Jerusalem College of Technology, and works on the side as a contributor for local newspapers in the New York Area. Tzvi's interests include learning Torah, rabble-rousing, and finding creative ways of mixing the two.
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