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Why did Sarah laugh?

Now that I'm going for the Orthodox ordination I never thought possible, I understand Sarah's laughter of disbelief - and joy (Lech Lecha)
Illustrative. Abraham Serving the Three Angels, by Rembrandt, 1646. (Wikipedia)
Illustrative. Abraham Serving the Three Angels, by Rembrandt, 1646. (Wikipedia)

“And Sarah laughed inside herself” (Genesis 18:12).

This reaction — of happiness mixed with disbelief, of shock and joy — captures Sarah’s response to overhearing God tell Abraham that she would have a baby, which takes place in next week’s parsha.

God’s response is to ask Abraham why Sarah laughed, which she vehemently denies.

And the moment always troubled me. How could Sarah, paragon of virtue, whom I am named after, doubt the word of God? How could her faith waver?

But this week, I grew to understand a little better:

It happened mid-way through a class discussion at Hebrew University about the definition of Jewish philosophy. “Are any of you studying to become rabbis?”

After a minute of looking shyly around the room, I hesitantly raised my hand. For a brief moment, it looked like I would be the only person in the room to do so — and in that moment, I laughed. I laughed at myself.

The idea of a woman being the only rabbinical student, in a room with so many men, struck me as both joyful and ridiculous at the same time. My affirmation of my rabbinical student status was mixed with disbelief — could this be happening to me? Was I really studying to become a rabbi?

I remember, once, when I was 8 years old, being asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. “If was a boy, I’d want to be a rabbi,” I said. It never occurred to me to want that for myself.

Even now, more than 20 years later, as I start my second year of semikha studies at Beit Midrash Har’el, I haven’t completely internalized the idea of women rabbis as normal. Sometimes, I lack faith in myself: will I really be able to become a rabbi? Will I pass my tests? Will I produce any Torah that is worth people listening to? Will my community accept me?

In class at Hebrew University, I was overjoyed to raise my hand. But I was also disbelieving and afraid. My faith — in myself, and in my community — wavered.

And in losing faith in people, I realized, I was expressing a lack of faith in God as well.

If I believe that God imparted a unique soul in each person, a soul that acts as a lens through which they learn and teach Torah, then each person has a unique Torah contribution to make to this world -including me. If I believe that God imparted wisdom, kindness, and a sense of justice in human nature, then I must believe that my community, using those traits, will begin to accept that gender should not be used to keep people away from Torah. If I believe in a God who created all people equally, regardless of their genitalia, then I must believe in a God who would not object to women becoming rabbis.

All of a sudden, the way that joy and gratitude could intermingle with lack of faith and with fear became clear. Sarah’s reaction to the news that she would have a baby was, for the first time, something I felt I could understand. I wondered if, perhaps, her lack of faith was not only in God’s ability to bring her a baby, but also in her faith in her own abilities to become a mother. I can see each doubt reinforcing the other: would God give a baby to someone who lacked maternal instincts? Could she trust that God trusted her?

In next week’s parsha, Sarah will finally give birth to the baby that she prayed for. She will laugh once more, but this time, her laughter will be full of faith and joy, the ambiguity gone from its timber.

“Sarah said: God has made a laugh for me; all who hear shall laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6).

That moment is emblematic of Sarah’s spiritual transformation. After being called out by God about her original laughter, she began to work on accepting the joyful piece of news. This started by working on her own areas of self-doubt, with faith in herself radiating outwards, to faith in the God who had chosen to trust her with the task of motherhood.

I believe that this path is analogous to the path that must be traveled by any Torah learner. It is only when we have faith that God has put an ability to understand Torah within us that we will be able to have faith in that Torah and in our Torah insights, and an ability to share them with others.

Now, I must travel down a similar road. I must improve my faith in a God who is not sexist, and in my community, which is taking slow by steady strives in accepting women’s Torah leadership. But most of all, I must improve my faith in myself, because that is the foundation upon which the other two types of faith are based on, and each type of faith reinforces the other.

After the Hebrew University philosophy class, for the rest of the day, several women (and only women — no men) came up to me wanting to know more about my rabbinic program. They were clearly very excited at the prospect of Orthodox women rabbis. And I hope that, for their daughters, the prospect of women rabbis won’t be exciting — it will simply be normal. A professor in a room full of Orthodox students will ask, “Who here is studying to be a rabbi?” and anticipate seeing as many women as men raise their hands. A woman will not find herself doubting whether her gender entitles her to hear and teach the word of God.

I have realized that the moment for the laughter of doubt is gone. It is time to move on to the new laughter: the laughter of faith and rejoicing — faith in God, who gave us a Torah that espouses human dignity and equality, faith in my community that they will accept me, and faith in myself, that I have the ability to travel on my chosen path.

It is time to move on to Sarah’s laughter when Isaac is born, and to have faith that when, God willing, I step up on the podium to get my semikha degree, my community will laugh with me.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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