Parashat Va-Yera 5770/ November 7, 2009
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Between Sarah and Abraham's Laugh
Prof. Nathan Aviezer
Department of Physics
Something quite puzzling happens at the beginning of Parashat Va-Yera. Messengers come to Abraham and announce to him that in one year’s time Sarah will bear a son: “Your wife Sarah shall have a son!” (Gen. 18:10). How does Sarah react to these wonderful tidings? With disbelief: “And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?” (Gen 18:12). The Holy One, blessed be He, rebukes Sarah for reacting thus, saying: “Why did Sarah laugh…? Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:13-14).
How are we to understand Sarah’s reaction? Why was she skeptical about the Lord’s promise? It is no less difficult to understand Abraham’s reaction to the preceding divine revelation to him. At that time, when the Holy One, blessed be He, was promising Abraham a son (Gen. 17:16), his response was similar to Sarah’s in this week’s reading: “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?’” (Gen. 17:17). So we see that Abraham, too, was skeptical.
In order to cope with the notion that Abraham, the very symbol of faith in G-d, did not believe His promise to him, some people interpret the text to mean that Abraham laughed for joy, perhaps saying to himself: “How wonderful that despite my being one hundred years old and my wife being ninety, we will have a son.”
Such an interpretation is not consonant with the plain sense of Scripture. The reactions of Abraham and Sarah to the tidings are cast in almost identical words and uniform style. Of Abraham it says, “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?’” Of Sarah it says, “And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?” Regarding Sarah’s reaction, we can deduce from the response of the Holy One, blessed be He, that she was of little faith, for the Lord answers her, “Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?”  This makes it difficult to interpret the same idea when expressed by Abraham in the opposite way, e.g., that Abraham believed and rejoiced over the tidings.
Further evidence of Abraham’s skepticism is provided by the continuation of his conversation with the Holy One, blessed be He: “And Abraham said to G-d, ‘O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!’ G-d said, ‘Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son’” (Gen. 17:18-19). According to these verses, Abraham had already come to terms with the fact that he would never have a son from Sarah and that his only heir would be Ishmael (“O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!”). In response, the Holy One, blessed be He, tried to convince Abraham not to despair, saying to him, “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son,” which Targum Onkelos renders, “Indeed, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son.”
Abraham’s skepticism raises two questions: first, if Abraham did not believe the tidings this time, why should he believe the messengers’ words when the Holy One, blessed be He, again promises him a son from Sarah? What could have led to a change in Abraham’s faith? Second, when Sarah laughed out of disbelief, the Holy One, blessed be He, rebuked her; but when Abraham laughed, there was no criticism of him. Why was Sarah’s reaction taken so much more severely than Abraham’s?
Looking back at G-d’s earlier revelation to Abraham, again we find something puzzling. The Holy One, blessed be He, in the usual fashion promised Abraham that he would have a son, and that numerous progeny would descend from him (“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… so shall your offspring be” [Gen. 15:5]). As expected, Abraham believed in the Lord’s promise (“he put his trust in the Lord”). Then comes the enigmatic phrase, “He reckoned it to his merit” (Gen. 15:6). What do these words mean? Why is Abraham’s faith here considered so exceptional that it is worthy of special praise?
In order to understand the course of events we must return to the beginning of the narrative. Parashat Lekh Lekha begins with the Lord’s first revelation to Abraham: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you’” (Gen. 12:1). Then the Holy One, blessed be He, promises him, “I will make of you a great nation” (Gen. 12:1). The forcefulness of this promise stands out against the background of our knowledge that Sarai, Abram’s wife, is barren (Gen. 11:31). Nevertheless, the Holy One, blessed be He, promises Abraham that his offspring will become “a great nation.” At the time, Abraham was seventy-five years old (Gen. 12:4). Later the Holy One, blessed be He, reiterated His promise: “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13:16). The third revelation (in chapter 15) took place on the heels of Sarah’s initiative to give her maidservant to Abraham, when Abraham was eighty-five years old.
At each of the Lord’s revelations to Abraham the question of who will be Abraham’s heir arises either directly or obliquely. Over the course of a decade (from age seventy-five to eighty-five) Abraham was repeatedly promised that he would indeed have offspring, and even though his barren wife was growing older and older all these years, he still did not lose faith in the Lord’s promise. Therefore, Abraham truly was praiseworthy: “He reckoned it to his merit.”
The fourth revelation took place after an interval of another fourteen years, when Abraham was ninety-nine, still had no son from Sarah, and, worst of all, “Sarah had stopped having the periods of women” (Gen. 18:11), since even a fertile woman is not capable of conceiving under such circumstances. Once more, Abraham heard the same promise from the Holy One, blessed be He – “I will give you a son by her” (Gen. 17:16). But this time even Abraham, the man of faith, found it difficult to continue trusting in the Lord’s promise; having lost all hope of having a son from Sarah in the natural way of the world, it is little wonder that Abraham ultimately lost faith: “Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed” (Gen. 17:17). But he was not criticized, perhaps because the Holy One, blessed be He, would not demand of Abraham anything that was beyond him.
The Lord’s fifth revelation to Abraham is described at the beginning of this week’s reading. The messengers repeat the promise that Sarah will bear a son. This time, however, Abraham gave credence to their words and did not laugh. What brought about this change in him?
The answer, it seems to me, is that for the first time in twenty-four years the Holy One, blessed be He, stated a target time: “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son” (Gen. 18:10). At long last a time had been set for the miracle that was to take place. When the Holy One, blessed be He, accompanied his promise with a concrete date, stating that in a few months Abraham would see that Sarah had conceived, Abraham’s faith was reawakened.
Sarah, however, who might have been hearing of the promise for the very first time, did not believe it could come to pass. After the Holy One, blessed be He, had given a precise date she ought to have waited a while in order to see if the promise was being fulfilled. Sarah’s lack of faith under these circumstances was what led to the Lord’s rebuking her for her reaction.
This is not the only time that heroes of the Bible evinced a lack of trust in the words of the Holy One, blessed be He. Even the great leader Moses acted that way in the episode of the quail. The Israelites in the wilderness had demanded meat to eat, and the Holy One, blessed be He, instructed Moses to respond to them that they would indeed have meat: “You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month” (Num. 11:19-20). Moses’ response showed utter disbelief in this promise by the Lord (Num. 11:21-22):
But Moses said, “The people who are with me number six hundred thousand men; yet You say, ‘I will give them enough meat to eat for a whole month.’ Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them? Or could all the fish of the sea be gathered for them to suffice them?”
Immediately the Lord rebuked Moses: “And the Lord answered Moses, ‘Is there a limit to the Lord’s power? You shall soon see whether what I have said happens to you or not!’” (Num. 11:23).
Recall that Moses also evinced lack of faith in what the Holy One, blessed be He, said when Moses was called upon to speak to the rock in order to draw water out of it for the Israelites. There the Lord responded: “But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them’” (Num. 20:12). This time the Lord’s wrath did not end with a mere rebuke, rather a far more severe punishment was meted out for Moses. Of course the question to ask is why his punishment here was more severe than in the episode of the quail. The answer is that in the story of smiting the rock, Moses and Aaron revealed their lack of faith publicly, “in the sight of the Israelite people.” It seems that in personal revelations, the Holy One, blessed be He, was prepared to accept anything from Moses, but in the present case Moses was punished because he displayed his doubt in public.
In fact, however, the Lord did not answer her directly but spoke with Abraham, and Sarah overheard their conversation (comment of Prof. Louis Rowen to the editor).