The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Lekh-Lekha 5758 (1997)
Laughter and Faith:
Prof. Eleazar Touitou
Department of Bible
"Abraham fell on his face and laughed...,"And Sarah laughed in her heart..."
Near the end of Parshat Lekh Lekha (Gen. 17:15-21) we read of G-d's promise to Abraham of progeny, Abraham's reaction, and G-d's counter-reaction. A similar tripar-tite structure appears in the beginning of the next reading, Parshat Va-Yera (Gen. 18:9-14): one of Abraham's visitors announces to Abraham, within Sarah's earshot, that she will bear a son. This is followed by Sarah's reaction and G-d's counter-reaction. Let us examine compare these passages.
G-d's promise to Abraham: "And G-d said unto Abraham: 'As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers and rulers of peoples shall issue from her.'"
The visitor's annunciation, heard by Sarah: "They said to him: 'Where is your wife Sarah?' And he replied, 'there, in the tent.' Then one said: 'I will return to you when life is due,and your wife Sarah shall have a son!' Sarah was listening..."
Abraham's reaction: "Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, 'Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?" And Abraham said to G-d, 'Oh that Ishmael might live by Your favor!"
Sarah's reaction: "And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment--with my husband so old?"
G-d's counter-reaction to Abraham: "G-d said: 'Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son; and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come. As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him.... But My covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.'"
G-d's counter-reaction to Sarah: "Then the Lord said to Abraham: 'Why did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am? Is anything too wondrous for the Lord? I will return to you at the time when life is due, and Sarah shall have a son.'"
The responses of Abraham and Sarah are similar: they both laugh at the promise, and both whisper to themselves in surprise at such a promise being made to a couple who are well on in years. Abraham adds a more realistic wish out loud: "Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!" as if to say to G-d that it would be sufficient for Ishmael, Hagar's son, to merit carrying on the line.
Strangely, throughout the generations the rabbis have interpreted Abraham's laughter in the opposite manner to Sarah's. In Rashi's words, "Onkelos translated this as joyous laughter, whereas Sarah's was mocking laughter. From this we learn that Abraham had faith and rejoiced, whereas Sarah had no faith and sneered" (Rashi, Gen. 17:17). According to this interpretation, Abraham's astonishment is an affirmation, saying to himself, "Would G-d grant this kindness --having a child at the age of one hundred years -- to any other person?" (Rashi, ibid.) This discriminatory interpretation of Abraham's versus Sarah's laughter is based on the difference in G-d's counter-reaction. As Rashi said, "G-d was angry with Sarah [when she laughed] but was not angry with Abraham" (ibid.). G-d, who knows the inner workings of the soul, understood the nature of their laughter, and therefore reproved Sarah for laughing; but to Abraham, on the contrary, He patiently reiterated the substance of the prophecy, even elaborating and further clarifying it.
This widespread approach hardly stands up to direct analysis of the plain text. Abraham received the promise from G-d Himself, in the context of a broad revelation beginning with a general announce-ment of the covenant between G-d and Abraham and the promise to Abraham of great progeny (Gen. 17:2). In response Abraham falls on his face the first time (v. 3), but has no further reaction. The covenant is to be marked in the flesh of Abraham and his seed after him by circumcision. Sarai's name is to be changed to Sarah, and she will be blessed doubly: "And I will bless her, ... yea, I will bless her." Indeed, G-d stresses the significance of this blessing: "moreover I will give thee a son of her ... and she shall be a mother of nations" (v. 16). This is a clear and unequivocal promise.
Actually, it is Abraham's reaction that is cause for wonderment. Does falling on his face a second time, laughing and uttering words of astonishment at the prophetic promise, indeed express faith and joyousness? True, G-d "was not angry with Abraham," in Rashi's words, but neither did He praise him, as He had previously done in a similar setting: "And he believed in the Lord; and He counted it to him for righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). Moreover, we must ask what reason was there for G-d to repeat His explanation of the prophecy if Abraham "had faith and rejoiced"? Was not the previous prophecy sufficiently explicit?
In contrast, the announcement to Sarah was delivered by a passer-by who, as if in thanks to Abraham for his gracious hospitality, blessed him and his wife with a son. He did not see the woman face to face, and ostensibly did not know she was very aged. Naturally Sarah viewed his words as ludicrous. If so, why was "G-d angry with Sarah"?
An original explanation, which departs from the usual approach, is found in the commentary of R. Joseph Bekhor Shor, a disciple of Rabbenu Tam and one of the first tosafists:
According to another approach, one could say that G-d did not want to reprove Abraham to his face, because he would be overly embarrassed; but when He reproved Sarah, it was not to her face. Rather, He instructed Abraham to ask her, "Why did you laugh so unabashedly?" Moreover, G-d hinted to him, saying, "thou shalt call his name Isaac," [meaning laughter] indicating that G-d knew what Abraham had done. Also, when Abraham reproved Sarah, he knew that he himself had not had the best intentions, and that G-d was only showing him respect, as a woman might reprove her daughter in front of her daughter-in-law, so that the latter also be reproved."*
The Midrash also is strongly critical of Abraham's behavior here:
"And Abraham fell on his face and laughed" -- R. Phinehas said in the name of R. Levi: Twice Abraham fell on his face, and against this his offspring were twice denied the rite of circumcision, once in Egypt and once in the desert. In Egypt, Moses came and circumcised the people, and in the desert Joshua came and circumcised them" (Yalkut Shimoni 82; and Genesis Rabbah 47:3, with no mention of R. Phinehas).
According to this homily, the two times that Abraham fell on his face, at the beginning of the prophecy and after the emphatic point that Sarah would bear him a son, are not an expression of faith and joy, but rather something like a rejection of G-d's proclamation of the covenant with Abraham and his seed, for which Abraham is later punished by his seed twice being prevented from performing circumcision.
There is yet another way to explain the behavior of our patriarch Abraham and matriarch Sarah. Their laughter can be viewed in the context of the prophet's awesome and sublime response to prophecy, of the wise man of faith coping with the demands of his belief. People live in the physical reality surrounding them. This reality obeys certain inevitable natural laws. According to these laws, it is inconceivable that a woman who was barren in her youth ("And Sarai was barren; she had no child" 11:30) and is now an aged and no longer "after the manner of women" (18:11) should bear child. Abraham and Sarah thought that the promise of seed to Abraham would be realized in the normal context of life as it was; therefore Sarah gave Abraham Hagar, who bore him Ishmael, thus ostensibly commencing fulfillment of the prophecy.
Then suddenly a new prophecy came, breaking the bounds of the laws of nature and instilling in the prophet a sort of tension which can not be rationally released, because of its contradictory elements: G-d's promise to change reality, versus the impossibility of such a change. Abraham's and Sarah's laughter lends expression to this tension, and it bursts forth spontaneously, without their control. It is not the laughter of joy, yet neither is it the laughter of sneering; rather, it is an expression of the spiritual and emotional tension of the person of faith, who believes in G-d, above and beyond reality and reason.
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