Vayeira: She Laughs

April 12, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Posted in Vayeira | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on October 17, 2010.)

Sarah gives birth at age 90  in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And He appeared”)The Torah portion opens with Abraham welcoming three mysterious strangers who look like men, but turn out to be angels or messengers from God.  Abraham tells Sarah to make cakes of fine flour, and orders a boy to kill and cook their best calf.  He serves the three visitors yogurt, milk, and the cooked calf.  After they eat (in their disguise as men), they let Sarah know she will, at very long last, have a child.

And they said to him: Where is Sarah, your wife?

And he said: Here!  In the tent.

And he said: I will definitely return to you at the time of life, and here!  A son for Sarah, your wife.

And Sarah was listening at the opening of the tent, which was behind them.  Abraham and Sarah were old, going on in years; the periods of women had stopped happening to Sarah.  And Sarah, tzachakah inside herself, saying: After being used up, will I have sexual pleasure?  And my husband is old! Then God said to Abraham: Why is it that Sarah tzachakah, saying: Is it really true, I will give birth, when I have become old?  (Genesis 18:12-14)

by James Tissot

by James Tissot

tzachakah (צָחֲקָה) = she laughed.

God already told Abraham this startling news at the end of last week’s Torah portion, and Abraham laughed at the absurdity of a child being born to a 100-year-old man and a 90-year-old woman, but he did not doubt God’s word.  Apparently he has not passed on the news to Sarah, perhaps because he has been busy circumcising all the men in his household, including himself.

When Sarah hears she will have a child, she also laughs. Down the centuries, the commentary keeps asking the same question as God: Why did Sarah laugh?  Is her laughter bitter, or joyful?  The quality of Sarah’s laughter matters, because God, Abraham, and Sarah, on separate occasions, all name the miracle baby Yitzchak (Isaac), which means “He will laugh”.

I can imagine more than one emotional tone in Sarah’s silent laughter.  So I offer these three alternatives for how her thoughts might continue after she laughs.

  1. 1)  So Sarah laughed inside herself, saying: After I’m worn out, will I have sexual pleasure?  And my husband is old.  This stranger seems to know my name, but he obviously doesn’t know my age.  I bet he was trying to give old Abraham a compliment; even a 99-year-old man likes to hear that he’s virile.  But the man overdid it.  I suppose he doesn’t know that I’ve been barren my whole life, and I had to give my maid-servant to my husband just to get a son to adopt.  He doesn’t realize how much his little remark hurt me.  Men are careless like that.  Even my own husband asks me to make fancy cakes for his guests, and then forgets to serve them!  Men never think of women’s feelings.  You’ve got to laugh at these jokers, so you don’t cry.
  2. 2) …and my husband is old. The stranger hasn’t seen me, so he doesn’t know what a dried-up old woman I am.  But Abraham’s standing right in front of him, all wrinkled and liver-spotted.  And limping, because of his circumcision.  Only an idiot would make an outrageous prediction like that, with a time limit, even.  An idiot, or a prophet.  That’s it, Abraham’s three guests are a band of traveling prophets!  Well, this is the most absurd prophecy I’ve ever heard.  Either they’ve got the wrong god, or the wrong message.  What a ridiculous situation!
  3. 3)…and my husband is old.  I was afraid he wouldn’t be able to do his part when I sent Hagar in to him, and that was 14 years ago.  And now?  Even if I were still young enough to have some juice, I know he’s past it.  He can’t even remember that he told me to make fancy cakes for the three strangers.  Served up the feast without them!  The old man still has some strength, though.  Not every 99-year-old man can survive being circumcised.  Or be so cheerful about it.  Abraham even winked at me, when he told me about what he was going to do to himself, and about how God opened up our names by adding the letter hey.  Everything’s opening up now, he said.  I wonder if he was hinting that my womb was going to open, too?  Maybe when God changed our names and ordered the circumcisions, He went on and told Abraham were going to have a child?  Oh, that would be a rich joke, after I’ve been barren my whole long life!  But if God wants to play a joke on us, and give us both a second youth so I can have my own baby— well then, bring on the miracle!
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  1. […] or joyful? Biblical commentary is divided. I offered several interpretations in my earlier post, Vayeira: She Laughs. This year, I find I agree with 16th-century Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, who wrote that Sarah assumes the […]


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