Monday, November 7, 2011

Sarah, You've Got Some 'Splainin' To Do!

The episode of Sarah's laughter at overhearing the prophecy that she and Avraham will have a child in one year's time has always been perplexing. I'm sure many of the readers have heard numerous shiurim or read divrei Torah on the incident. While reviewing the second aliyah of this week's parsha Vayera for Shnaim Mikra v'Echad Targum, I noticed a few more wrinkles that doen't make sense to me.

Here's the scene. HaShem is visiting Avraham, who is recovering from his recent circumcision. Avraham looks up, sees three men, leaves HaShem to go greet them and arrange for food to be prepared for his unexpected guests. They ask him where Sarah his wife is (I guess he told them her name already, or they knew beforehand because Avraham and Sarah were famous), and Avraham replies, "Behold! In the tent!"

The man talking to Avraham informs him that he's going to return again in a year and Sarah will have given birth to a son. The next posuk tells us that Sarah is eavesdropping in on the conversation at the entrance of the tent, which is located behind "him," which I guess means Avraham, who had been going in and out to bring the dishes of food. In a narrative verse, the Torah tells us that Avraham and Sarah were old, Sarah had entered menopause.

Sarah apparently thinks this well-wisher and his blessing are funny, and laughs at herself/within herself/at her insides (depending on the translation) and wonders aloud if it's possible that though she has withered, she'll once again have "smooth skin," or resume menstruating (both per Rashi) and thus be able to conceive and bear a son. She also mentions her husband/lord is old.

Out of nowhere, HaShem, Who had seemingly been "absent" from the ongoing discussion (is G-d ever not there?) joins the conversation and asks Avraham why Sarah laughed, and famously alters what she actually said, omitting her seemingly slightly offensive remark about her husband to "Is it even true that I shall give birth, though I have aged?" HaShem proclaims that nothing is beyond His abilities, and says now that He will return in a year and Sarah will have a son.

Parenthetically, did you notice the sudden change from what the visitor said to HaShem saying the same thing? I think it's at this point that we can infer that the men who happened to stop by are implied to be angels. Though some commentators claim they were normal men - and according to Rashi, perhaps Avraham still thought so too - by combining this interjection by HaShem, along with their foreboding gaze toward Sodom (18:16) and departure for Sodom (18:22) following HaShem's revelation of His plan to Avraham, it seems to be somewhat overtly indicated that they are more than what they appear to be.

Anyway, after HaShem tells Avraham of Sarah's laughter and alters her words for the sake of Shalom Bayis (as Rashi says in 18:13), Sarah appears in the main tent, no longer hiding and denies laughing, which the narrative posuk tells us was because she was afraid.

Finally, the Torah writes, "וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא, כִּי צָחָקְתְּ" - "and he said, 'No, but you laughed'" (18:15).

WHO said that? According to the Artscroll translation, the pronoun "he" from "and he said" is lowercase, implying Avraham (which makes more sense than the speaking male visitor).

Is it just me, or does this whole scene sound like an episode of, l'havdil, "I Love Lucy?" Sarah/Lucy gets caught red handed, so-to-speak as HaShem / l'havdil Fred tells Avraham/Ricky. Avraham/Ricky turns to his wife as she vehemently denies it, knowing that she really did it, despite her denial and affirms that she did, indeed laugh.

Cue the audience laugh-track.

Did Avraham hear Sarah laugh because her laughter was quite loud and unique? Or is he saying that, "Well, if G-d says you laughed, sweetheart, and you deny it, I'm going with G-d on this one"?

It all seems strange to read the flow of the conversation that way,.

The JPS translation has the English version of the posuk written with a capital "He," meaning HaShem addresses Sarah and replies that she did, in fact, laugh. This makes a little more sense to me, since HaShem certainly did "hear" her laugh (how could He not, being G-d and everything?) and had just informed Avraham of that occurrence.

Now back in our crazy sitcom version, HaShem / l'havdil Fred turns to the embarrassed Sarah/Lucy and wags a finger at her saying, "Oh, yes you did!" Again, cue the laugh-track as Sarah/Lucy makes that famous grimace we all know and love.

It all seems a little strange. Even without the Nick-at-Nite references, HaShem "appears" out of nowhere, Sarah gets admonished, and we cut back to Avraham with his guests. Did Sarah just slink away, happy that she will have a baby but a bit embarrassed at the scene that just transpired?

Another thought, somewhat related thought.

At the end of last week's parsha of Lech Lecha, when HaShem first tells Avraham that he will have a child with Sarah, Avraham himself falls on his face laughing. He says "Will a hundred year old have a child? And Sarah, who is ninety, give birth?"

Avraham's response seems very similar to Sarah's. Each wonders with incredulity that he/she could possibly sire/give birth to a child because of their advanced age, and then remarks that his/her wife/husband is elderly. Granted, the terminology is not exactly the same. Avraham just uses their ages, while Sarah mentions her menopausal state and that Avraham is old. But is that really so much more offensive? Especially given HaShem's critique of Sarah, when He proclaims that nothing is beyond His abilities.

The Artscroll Stone Chumash quotes the Kotzker Rebbe who says that though Sarah truly believed her laughter was in good spirit, there was some real subconscious doubt deep within her mind. There's also the vort I heard Rav Goldvicht quote from the a Sefas Emes that viewed Sarah's denial in a better light. However, I can't recall anyone ever saying that Avraham's response was negative in any way.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to besmirch the reputation of our holy forefather, I just don't quite understand the inherent difference regarding the level of laughing disbelief expressed by Avraham and Sarah.

Any thoughts, comments, or suggestions on these parsha musings?

P.S. As many readers know, I am quite fond of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and his writings. His "Covenant and Conversation" from last week on Lech Lecha is simply fantastic. His essay the week before that on Noach also discussed a fascinating interpretation of the Tower of Bavel and the languages getting mixed up that I had never heard before.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps men and women are held to different standards in these things. Compare it to the different consequences Aharon and Miriam faced when both were gossiping about Moses and Tsipporah.

    All of Aharon's actions are always seen in only the best light, even when that seems to contradict the text a bit.


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