Vayeira 5777

Laughing at good news[1]

ויאמר שוב אשוב אליך כעת חיה והנה-בן לשרה אשתך ושרה שמעת פתח האהל והוא אחריו: ותצחק שרה בקרבה לאמר אחרי בלתי לי עדנה ואדני זקן: ויאמר יקוק אל אברהם למה זה צחקה שרה לאמר האף אמנם אלד ואני זקן: ותכחש שרה לאמר לא צחקתי כי יראה ויאמר כי צחקת
[The Angel] said: “I will surely return at this time [next year] and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son”. Sarah [in the meantime] was listening at the entrance to the tent, and he/it was behind him. Sarah laughed within, saying: “After no longer having my period? As well, my husband is old?!” Hashem said to Avraham, why is it that Sarah laughed, saying: “Is it true that I’ll give birth, since I am old?” Sarah denied [this], and said, “I didn’t laugh!” because she was afraid. He said: “Actually, you laughed”.[2]

One of the hardest to understand episodes in Sefer Bereishis is the story of Sarah’s reaction to the good news that she’ll have a son. Three Angels, in the guise of desert travelers, approached Avraham’s tent and were invited to a meal[3]. These Angels each had a specific mission[4]. One came to announce that Sarah, despite her old age and being barren, will have a son. Besides all the strange grammatical anomalies and inconsistencies in this story[5], just the basic elements of the story are hard to understand. Avraham had been promised by Hashem to have many descendants[6]. While he already had a child with Sarah’s maidservant Hagar, why was it so hard for Sarah to believe that she’d bear a child? It’s true that some commentaries say[7] that Avraham didn’t realize these people were Angels, so perhaps Sarah took this news as some stranger giving her false hope. However, knowing the promise to Avraham, if some stranger says similarly, what’s there to laugh about?

What’s harder to understand is Sarah’s reaction to Hashem’s accusation of her laughter. The verse says that she denied it, and the reason was that she was afraid. Presumably it means she was afraid of Hashem being angry at her. However, while it’s one thing to laugh at the promises of a stranger, to flat out lie to the Master of the Universe? Did she really think she could hide something from him? Chazal tell us[8] that Sarah was a greater prophet than Avraham. How could she make such a mistake?

To explain all of this, some details of the story need be clarified. There’s a strange part in verse 10, which says ושרה שמעת פתח האהל והוא אחריו. It means that Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which makes sense. The next two words however, are ambiguous. It says “he” was behind “him”. Who was behind who? Rashi explains[9] that “he” is referring to the entrance (since there is no “it” in Hebrew, it refers to the entrance in masculine). He also explains “him” is the Angel that was speaking. Therefore, the verse is telling us that the Angel didn’t see Sarah listening behind him. According to this explanation, what does this detail add to the story? The Angel shouldn’t have minded Sarah listening, especially since he was talking about her. Why do we need to know this?

Targum “Yonasan”[10] has an interesting translation of the last two words, not like Rashi. He writes וישמעאל קאי בתריה וצית מה דאמר מלאכא, Yishmael, Avraham’s son from Sarah’s maidservant Hagar, was listening as well behind the Angel. He was listening to what the Angel was saying. The Targum Yerushalmi10 says the same, based on the Midrash[11]. With this explanation, Sarah’s reaction can be understood. Sarah saw Yishmael listening, and was worried he would become upset at the news of her having a son. Until now, Yishmael had the status as Avraham’s first born. Hashem promised once Yitzchak is born, he’ll become the main son[12]. Previously[13], Chazal taught us that Sarah cast ayin hara on Hagar, causing her to miscarry. Sarah was worried Yishmael would do the same to her, as revenge for her mother. This is why she laughed. She believed the news was true, but she hoped Yishmael wouldn’t take it seriously if she appeared to laugh at the Angel.

This fits very nicely with the strange words ותצחק שרה בקרבה, literally “she laughed with her innards”[14]. Rashi explains[15] that she “looked” at her innards in disbelief and said: “how could this womb carry a child?” It sounds like she said this out loud. The reason would be because Yishmael was listening in. Chazal teach us[16] that the Egyptian King Ptolemy ordered seventy Sages to translate the Torah into Greek (known today as the Septuagint). Chazal list different changes the Sages made in their translation[17], since the literal translation would appear problematic to the uninitiated. Instead they translated it according to the proper interpretation. This verse is one of the changes. Instead of ותצחק בקרבה, they translated it as ותצחק בקרוביה, she laughed with her relatives. Meaning, Yishmael.

With that explanation for why she laughed, why was Hashem upset at her? He knew her intentions were proper. The reason is because according to the strict middas hadin, letter of the law, she showed a lack of bitachon, faith in Hashem. He promised her she would have a child; what was there to be afraid of? Someone of her stature should have had full faith that all would go as foretold. This is why she responded with לא צחקתי כי יראה, I didn’t laugh, rather I was afraid. She meant she believed she would have a child. At the same time, she was afraid of Yishmael. Hashem responded[18] that she still laughed. Despite her faith, it was not complete.

We learn from this story that while we are of course required to do our proper diligence in life, we must remember that not everything is in our hands. Sometimes, we should remind ourselves that we just need to have faith in Hashem that all will be for the best. It’s not always easy. Sarah was promised through a Divine messenger, and she still didn’t have complete faith in Hashem. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from her mistake. We just have to try our best. Good Shabbos.

[1] Based on Magged Yosef by Rav Yosef Yehudah, the son of the Sorotzkin Rebbe

[2] Genesis 18:10, 12, 13, 15

[3] Ibid verses 2-8 with Rashi

[4] Rashi to verse 2

[5] Which made it hard to translate without picking sides in interpretation

[6] Genesis 12:2 and 17:6 inter alia. It’s clear however from Sarah’s reaction that for some reason Avraham hadn’t told her that Hashem also promised her descendants (ibid verse 16, see Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman to ibid 18:12). See Ramban to ibid 18:15 for a couple of explanations why

[7] Rashi to ibid 18:4,8

[8] Rashi to ibid 21:12, quoting Shemos Rabbah 1:1

[9] Ad. loc.

[10] Ad. loc.

[11] Bereishis Rabbah 48:16. This explanation is also brought by the Chizkuni ad. loc.

[12] Genesis 17:19

[13] Ibid 16:6

[14] Ibid 18:12

[15] Ad. loc.

[16] Megillah 9a

[17] It was a miracle that they all separately made the same changes

[18] Cf. Targum Yonasan, Ramban, Ohr HaChaim ad. loc.