Vayeira: Laughing in Disbelief

November 4, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Vayeira | 2 Comments
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Humans laugh when we encounter a mismatch—when two things appear together that we would never expect to see in the same context.  We laugh in fun at the surprise of humor, in joy when get unexpected good fortune, in incredulity when a mismatch is too great to believe, and in mockery at a mismatch in a person we resent.

In the Torah, humor is offered without a laugh track; it is up to the reader to recognize jokes and funny situations.  But characters in the Bible do laugh with joy, with incredulity, and in mockery. The first laugh in the Torah is Abraham’s, when God tells him (at the end of last week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha) that his wife Sarah will have a baby at age 90.

And Abraham fell on his face vayitzchak, and he said in his heart:  Will he be born to a 100-year-old man, and will 90-year-old Sarah give birth? (Genesis/Bereishit 17.17)

vayitzchak (וַיִּצְחָק) = and he laughed

Abraham’s question shows he is laughing out of incredulity, not joy. At this point in the story, God has promised Abraham five times that his descendants will possess the land of Canaan.  Abraham has assumed these descendants will come from Ishmael, his son through the slave Hagar.  Now he learns that he must make a covenant in which he circumcises all the males in his household, and in return God gives Canaan to his descendants through his wife Sarah.

Obviously Abraham and Sarah are incapable of having a baby at their ages; it would require a miracle.  Abraham laughs in his heart and questions whether God will make the required miracle. But when God repeats his promise, Abraham overcomes his skepticism and goes ahead with the circumcisions.

by James Tissot

by James Tissot

Abraham’s laugh opens the way for several kinds of laughter in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And he saw”). The next laugh is Sarah’s.  Three visitors ask Abraham where Sarah is, and when Abraham says she is in the tent behind them, they know she can hear them.  Then one of the visitors says: I will definitely return to you at the next season and hey! Your wife Sarah will have a son. (Genesis 18:10)

Apparently Abraham has not mentioned God’s latest promise to his wife, because these words surprise her.

And Sarah, tzachakah inside herself, saying: After being used up, will I have sexual pleasure?  And my husband is old! (Genesis 18:12)

tzachakah (צָחֲקָה) = she laughed.

What kind of laugh is this—incredulous 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 speaker is a prophet giving a blessing, not a divine messenger giving the word of God. Even with a prophet’s blessing, Sarah thinks, they are simply too old to have a child. Only a direct command of God could achieve that miracle.

I would add that Sarah’s inner laughter is also bitter because she misses the sexual pleasure that used to come with attempting to get pregnant. Both a child and sex are beyond her reach, she thinks, and this prophet who believes he is blessing her might as well be mocking her.

She does not know that God hears her inner laughter.

Then God said to Abraham: Why is it that Sarah laughed, saying: Is it really true, I will give birth, when I have become old? Is a thing too extraordinary for God? At the appointed time I will return to you, at the next season, and Sarah will have a son. And Sarah denied it, saying: I did not laugh; for she was afraid. But he said: No, for you did laugh. (Genesis 18:13-15)

(All the verbs for laughing in the above passage are variations of tzachakah = she laughed, with different pronoun suffixes.)

When Sarah hears God’s words to Abraham, she realizes God really is speaking through the visitor. Then she is afraid she has insulted God. God insists that she remember she laughed in skepticism over God’s ability to make a miracle.

A different form of the Hebrew word for laughter appears next, when Lot tries to convince his sons-in-law that God is about to destroy the town of Sodom.

Lot went out and he spoke to his sons-in-law who had married his daughters, and he said: Get up and go out from this place, because God is destroying the city! But he was like a metzacheik in the eyes of his sons-in-law. (Genesis 19:14)

metzacheik (מְצַחֵק) = someone who causes laughter; a joker, a jester, a fool; the act of joking, playing, or amusing oneself.

Like Abraham and Sarah, Lot’s sons-in-law cannot believe God is about to make a miracle. But both Abraham and Sarah are able to keep listening until they recognize that God really is going to change the natural order of things.  Lot’s sons-in-law refuse to listen—even though the miracle will kill them in the morning.

After Abraham sees Sodom being obliterated, he moves his household south and settles near Gerar.  There Sarah gives birth at age 90, and Abraham follows God’s earlier instructions and names the boy Isaac, or Yitzchak (יִצְחָק) = he laughs, he will laugh.

Johannes Moreelse, Democritus, detail

Johannes Moreelse, Democritus, detail

And Sarah said: God has made tzechok for me; everyone who hears, yitzachak for me. (Genesis 21:6)

tzechok (צְחֹק) = laughter.

yitzachak (יִצֲחַק) = he will joke, play, amuse himself.

Sarah might well laugh with joy now over her miraculous good fortune. Instead, she is self-conscious about how ridiculous she looks, a 90-year-old woman nursing an infant. She expects that when other people hear the news, they will joke about her.

After Isaac is weaned, Sarah sees Ishmael metzacheik = joking, playing, or amusing himself. This is the same word the Torah uses in regard to Lot’s sons-in-law in Sodom.

Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she [Hagar] had born to Abraham, metzacheik. And she said to Abraham: Drive out this slave-woman with her son, because the son of this slave-woman shall not inherit along with my son, with Isaac! (Genesis 21:9-10)

Commentators disagree on what Ishmael is doing. One interpretation is that Ishmael is metzacheik by playing the role of Isaac, Yitzchak, the son who will inherit. Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Girondi, a.k.a. Nachmanides) went further when he wrote that Ishmael is mocking Isaac by claiming Isaac is actually the son of the king of Gerar, who only pretended he had not touched Sarah when he held her captive in the previous chapter.

Ishmael has to believe that Sarah give birth, because he saw her pregnant and then nursing. But he has trouble believing that he was been supplanted as Abraham’s heir. When Isaac was born, Ishmael was 14 years old.  For his whole life, his father had loved him and trained him to inherit the leadership of the tribe. How could the ridiculous birth of a baby to a 90-year-old woman change everything?

I think Ishmael is metzacheik, making mockery, because of his incredulity over what has happened.

Later in the Bible, characters laugh and amuse themselves in pure mean-spirited mockery. And on one occasion, Isaac/Yitzchak laughs with joy as he plays with his beloved wife Rebecca. But in this week’s Torah portion, laughter always comes from incredulity.

Incredulity is natural when you are faced with a mismatch that violates your whole life experience—and affects you personally. Your first reaction is likely to be a laugh. But what do you do next?

Lot’s sons-in-law and Ishmael refuse to accept the new reality, and their laughter turns into jeering. Do you, too, get stuck fighting back against an incredible change in your world?

Abraham and Sarah laugh, but they keep listening to God, and they accept the transformation of their world. What do you do after you laugh? Do you listen to the voice of your own soul, and accept your new reality?




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  1. Thanks, Melissa, for your interesting commentary.

  2. […] wife to Gerar, three angels announce that in a year she will have a son. (See my earlier post, Vayeira: Laughing in Disbelief.) In the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metziah 87a), Rav Hisda explains that after the annunciation, […]

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