Genesis 18 – 22
When is a laugh more than just a chuckle?
What is a laugh exactly? Why do we do it at all? A laugh isn’t like any other reaction, it is something that is quite automatic. Everybody laughs. People who have studied laughter are amazed that even blind and deaf people laugh. This comes as a surprise to many because we most often think of our responses as being learned and culturally influenced. But we can’t help but notice that even babies laugh. Babies, who have never witnessed another person laugh, will naturally do it themselves; in-fact more often, at about 200 times a day while an infant, as compared to adults at only 20 times a day. It’s something that just impulsively bubbles up out of a person.
Today we are going to begin to take a look at a story about laughter, and how the many facets of laughter are displayed in the Torah. When is a laugh more than just a chuckle? Sometimes it is an appropriate response, at other times it’s merely a bad reaction. Sometimes it is well received, other times it’s something that can be a thing of scorn. People laugh for many reasons. But all forms of outburst reveal a bit of the soul of the person it bellies up out of.
The most notorious of all laughs in the scriptures is presented here, in the following verse from the first aliya of our parsha:
“And Sarah laughed with herself,
‘After I have become old?
Shall I become tender again?
And my master is old!’”
| acharei veloti
| hayetah-li ednah
| va’adoni zaken
The story is familiar to us all. Our parsha begins with Avraham entertaining messengers of G-d, the angels are begged to accept his hospitality before continuing on their travels. (v.1-5) They therefore come into his tent and Avraham begins to feverishly prepared many courses of meals and takes to entertaining his honored guests. (v.6-8)
The first thing that is recorded to have been uttered by the guests once they settled themselves in was a question at to where Avraham’s wife Sarah was. Out of modestly she is standing away from them, almost hiding near the entrance which is behind the guests. Knowing that she is close enough to hear the messenger doesn’t wait for her to present herself, he just goes to declare that surely this time next year Sarah will have a son. (v.9-10)
And then Sarah laughs. (v.12) However, not without the Torah first validating the reason why Sarah laughs inside of herself. Both Avraham and Sarah are advanced in age, they are very old. And Sarah has stopped having her menstrual cycle. (v.11) Only then do we see the reason why she laughs. How can a person not laugh? What is being suggested is nothing short of fantastical. So she laughs inside herself. (v.12)
Knowing that she has laughed, G-d asks a question of Avraham, as his wife is still cowering aside from their house-guests. Though sheepishly hidden at first, G-d hears her secret doubts, and confronts them. Asking rhetorically, can there be anything impossible for G-d?
Now the reason that this laugh is so notorious is not just because she is called out on it, but also because she is insistent in denying her laughing. This is not a passing mention, this takes up an unusually large amount of the narrative for something so seemingly trivial. However so much of a central point is this to the story that the second aliyah begins with her denial at its head. We are even told why she denied her laughter, it was because she was afraid. She was intimidated. However, G-d insists, “No, but you did laugh.” (v.15)
Now one of the reasons this story sometimes has troubled me is because we aren’t sure exactly why G-d makes such an incident out of this. Why does she get singled out for such a scolding?
One of the reasons that this seems odd to me is because this isn’t the first time that we see someone laughing in response to something astounding G-d has said. In fact it is none other than Avraham himself who is said to have previously busted-up after hearing a prophecy. A prophecy that was about the very same subject. In the previous chapter and parsha, in Genesis 17:17 we read, “Vayapol Avraham panav vayetzchak / And Avraham fell on his face and laughed…”
G-d had already given Avraham this talk about their bareness before. In fact Avraham already had one son by a concubine, Ishma’el. However, instead of recognizing that son born of a servant Avraham is told that his true wife Sarah is going to bear him a son to carry on their dynasty. When he makes this pact with G-d he accepted everything, even the concept of circumcision and changing their names without even a flinch. But then when Avraham is told that the couple is finally going to have their long-awaited child, he breaks into hysterical laugher and falls to the ground face-first. He asks in his heart how this could be, as he is 100 years old and she is already 90 years old.
What was so different about their laughter? Why does his laughter and doubt only get the slightest correction, and Sarah get such a strong and direct one? They had even laughed in response to the same topic, just on different occasions.
One of the reasons is obviously because of Sarah’s objection. Had she not vehemently denied her laugher the topic would have probably ended there. But instead she was corrected to the extend that she objected.
Though it’s more than that. If we take a good look we can see that there is a difference between the way Avraham and Sarah laughed. Avraham laughed out-loud, but doubted in his heart. Sarah is said to have laughed in her heart, and then doubted out-loud.
The difference between the emotions and attitude behind each reaction may not appear evident to us right away. But there is a substantial difference. Sure both of them reacted to the absurdity of the situation. They needed to release their dissonance with this new reality is some way, and it reveals itself as laughter. They both had this involuntary response. Both of them laughed when they first heard of their amazing destiny. However Avraham’s laughter is one of astonishment, whereas Sarah first reacts with silent mocking. It’s this silent mocking that G-d pulls to the surface and reveals for them to see.
What is also different about the two reactions is that Avraham’s laughter is at least followed-up with a question as to how this is going to happen. In the mind of Avraham it was more of a question of how it was possible, not necessarily if it was truly possible. He wants to think it out. Sure his expression does relate a certain level of disbelief, but not one of doubt. He was open to the possibility. For Sarah it was a closed case, she already doubted it in her heart.
On the surface it clearly appears that she is being singled out here for her cynicism. And that was a major problem that needs to be settled. She is not exposed in this narrative in order to shame her, but to call to attention to her lack of hope. This exchange between her and G-d cannot simply be about knocking her chops for some sort of derision, but instead because she had a deep sense of doubt about herself!
Notice when G-d rebuttals Sarah’s denial of her laughter He doesn’t bring up the unkind things that she said about her husband being an old man. It isn’t repeated that way, G-d instead rephrased it to focuse on the only real obstacle left. Her own doubt about her own ability to make this happen. G-d interpreted her statement for what it was really saying, she felt she was too old and worn out to make it happen now.
This self-doubt ran so deep that she might not have even been fully aware how deeply her cynicism ran. This might explain for her continuous insistence that she hadn’t laughed. The reality is that she had not actually laughed vocally, but she laughed all the same. And it is this deep-seated doubt that is the most debilitating. So deeply does this disbelief and lack of hope run that she might have actually been honest in her own mind about not laughing, she just didn’t recognize that inner voice laughing at herself. So here it is exposed bare for her to face within herself.
As we consider this lesson, I would like us to consider a few questions within ourselves: Do you hear the cues of self-doubt in your head? Is it possible that you just don’t recognize some of your own sense of hopelessness? Have you grown cynical?
It is a very human thing to doubt ourselves, and is certainly is a reality that sometimes we also doubt G-d too. But as we see in the example of Avraham, G-d is okay with our fiery laughter when it comes with a sense of wonder or shock. But what is not acceptable is a passive laugh of cold pessimism.
Responding to Good and Bad News in Our Tradition: A Personal Experience
Is there an appropriate way to respond to tides of good and bad news as they come in our lives? As we see, we are to be careful about the tone of the inner voices. Surely we should take even more care with our outward expressions. Though not all expressions can be easily controlled, as religious Jews we try to be poised and dignified with our responses.
In light of Sarah’s example, it would make sense why we are very careful to say a blessing when we hear good news. The blessing used is also the one we say when we are observing a holiday or special occasion in our lives. Most Jews of all levels of observance know this one intimately:
“Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.”
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ ,וְקִיְמָנוּ ,וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לִזְמַן הַזֶּה:
Baruch ata Hashem, Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, she’ech’eyanu, ve’ki’eh’manu, va’higiy’anu liz’man hazeh
We also have another blessing exclusively for if one hears good news, but in most tradition its associated with communal good news so it’s another good one to know as well:
“Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, who is good and does good.”
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֶלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵטִיב:
Baruch ata Hashem, Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, hatov v’hamaitiv.
It was this type of blessing I had in mind when I first walked into my doctor’s office one day. My health had been improving after several years of suffering with multiple life threatening conditions and surgeries. I had crawled out of the depression, addiction and the rest of the ruin that had come with my collapse into disrepair. I was doing well with my job. My family life was better than ever before. I was even getting ready to move into a new home and focus on some new longterm plans. The she’ech’eyanu was a prayer that I had come to know very well, especially more recently as things just got better and better in my life.
I was so confident that things were going somewhere that I marched in to take my annual physical on schedule, simply to confirm that all was going to be fine. Everything was going to be well, because I was well.
However a few days later my doctor calls me back into his office. My simple physical started to get more complicated as more and more tests were run. The number of tests and visits kept increasing, though without any clear explanation as to why. However, given my experience with strange illnesses I expected just a little bit of oddity. At first I was sure it was something I was going to shrug off. But as the diagnostics went on and on I grew more afraid.
One day during one of the doctor’s visits I began to read the chart myself, and I noticed that my white blood cells and platelets were impossibly low. I had a dangerous case of anemia. So I asked the doctor about this, and he suggested that we run test for leukemia and HIV.
As that point I became overwhelmed with fear. Whereas I understood the nature of each disease, I was terrified at the possibility of either. My own dear sister, one of the closest people to me, she suffered leukemia starting at four years old. Such forms of cancer are common in my family. having to watch the treatment of it up close in all it’s brutality I was traumatized by it.
Having also grown up through the crazy-making of the AIDS crisis I also understood HIV well. Coming of age in a world where the virus was virtually non-treatable, before the anti-retrovirials that were rolled out in the mid-to-late 1990s. I watched many friends and acquaintances die of AIDS, caring for a few of them through the pain of their final months.
Remembering the pain and suffering I had witnessed with my loved ones, I was overwhelmed by the crisis I was facing. The more testing and waiting made me even more worried.
One day the doctor walks into the room and just begins to speak, “Your test results came back, you are HIV-positive….”
The rest of his words were kind of a blur to me. But I remember he just kept on talking, paced and steadily. There was no pause for me to get in a word as he just droned on, I could hear the nervousness in his breath and make out the nervous twitches on his face. It was as though he had to keep going in order to see it through, if he stopped it would overwhelm him too.
And for a moment there I thought I was going to laugh. I felt it come up and then stop. Now far from my mind was my blessing of thanksgiving. I was left sitting there, with this tragedy falling all over me and my hopes all at one. And of all misfortunes, one that I had grown to fear the most. And as he kept talking the news just kept getting worse.
As I sat there trying to take it all in a growing rumble came up inside of me. Then I felt myself lean forward in despair, my arms slightly flailing to the side. But then all at once my hands oddly went right up and over my head, holding my head as it just seemed to thud and spin at the same time. My breath was broken between trembling, wisping and sputtering. I didn’t know what to do or say. And then I heard my own voice achingly blurt out the words: “Baruch diyan ha’emet / Blessed is the True Judge.”
At that point I noticed that the doctor stopped talking, being of middle-eastern origin he seemed to recognize the words. He jerked back in surprise, and his looked showed an equal sense of surprise and pain. As I peered up he gave me a look of, “How can you?” And the truth is that I was wondering the same thing myself.
When religious Jews hear bad news or on the occurrence of a tragic event this is the way that one is taught to respond. For any calamitous event one says, “Blessed is the True Judge.” In our tradition it is the custom to respond to all major events with a way of recognizing G-d’s role in that occurrence. This also applies to calamity.
The reason behind such a blessing is because religious Jews recognize that all events in our lives are opportunities. All opportunities can lead to blessing. When we hear of tragedy we use these strong words to help us stand firm in face of our greatest fears. It might look like an impossibly bad situation, but we need to let G-d be the judge of that. It make look like there is no hope, but we need to G-d to be the judge of that.
Even at life’s end we still find ourself coming to the same conclusion, our final destiny is only judged by G-d alone. Thus “diyan ha’emet” is also the blessing one says when they hear a person has died. We have nothing to fear in death, as we trust that we will stand and face the judgment of a just G-d. We will face the True Judge, we have nothing to fear.
One of the reasons my reaction surprised me so was because I didn’t know I had it in me. This was the worst news I could think of. I knew what I was in store for. And I had a million questions that I couldn’t articulate, as they all collided and pilled up on their way out. I had just heard the worst news of my life. And even more painfully, I began to see all my plans go crumble into ruin. All the progress I thought I had made was lost in a new fight for my life, one that I was quite sure I wasn’t strong enough for. I had grown older, more worn down by my battles up until up until then. This was something my logic told me I had little chance of surviving, my condition being that severe. I felt helpless and for a brief moment. Any sliver of bravery I thought I possessed appeared to escape me.
But then I heard myself say those words. And for a moment I just sat and felt those words echo in my head. Every bit stunned by this statement as the doctors words of doom.
The reason that this both startled and comforted me was because I had always been afraid of the possibility of this type of reality. I had become very careful and extremely mindful of my health because of it. I knew all the science and facts to arm oneself with. I had convinced people so many times before that they could be okay in this situation. But secretly inside myself, I was always afraid that I could never live up to my own words of optimism in the face such a diagnosis. I had seen stronger and nobler people lose this battle. Could I keep the courage of my convictions and maintain my spirit of hope when my life really depended on it? I just wasn’t so sure.
And then I heard myself blurt out those words. “Baruch diyan ha’emet,” blessed is the True Judge.
Even when I was at a total loss, my soul appeared to know what to do and sprung into action. A rarely used blessing bubbled to the surface. Whereas everything else seemed to fail me, these words of our tradition found their usefulness. Though the first words started with a broken voice, each word staggered out stronger than the one before it. But is was enough to convinced me.
As I look over this lesson of Sarah’s laughter, I can most certainly related to the experience of wanting to react with cynicism. I can certainly understand the pain of what it feels like to have one’s body seem to betray them and their dreams. I very much know what it’s like to automatically respond with a knee-jerk reaction. Her story reverberates with me with a different sense of empathy than most. I know what it’s like to want something so bad and to find one’s own body to be the only obstacle.
Though I found myself facing the most trying and painful time in my life, I experienced a bit of awe like never before. In that when my rationality failed me, soulful words of truth came to the rescue. I found that my soul had matured and cherished the truth of my faith in a deeper way than I had realized. My true faith so natural that when pricked all that flowed to the surface was a rebuttal to cognitive dissonance of this situation. Though this diagnosis held itself over my head like a death sentence, I knew that only G-d was the final Judge in this matter. The case was not yet settled. These words reminded me of that truth.
From there I was able to collect myself and then spring into action, talking over the next round of tests and necessary measured that needed to be taken to preserve my life. I picked up my head and started to move into action to help save my life.
Many of us never know the strength that is inside of us until pushed to the limit. Many of us never realize how deep our faith and our sense of hope run until we are put on the spot. Most of us think that when faced with such disastrous circumstances we will be helpless and lost, but your heart knows the truth (ha-emet) if we listen to it. We know that our fate is only determined by G-d and our own faith in a better reality.
Baruch Hashem, thank G-d, I’m still here and thriving. Not because I’m a saint, or even particularly brave. But because I know a Judge that is greater than any. And He that still hasn’t ruled me out. For the first time in my life, this is something I’m sure I’m convinced of on a heart level.
Advice: This week I would like people to spend some time listening to their inner voices and cues. As you face new challenges this week, ask yourself how you feel about it. Is it something you have confidence in, or is there some level of fear, uncertainty or doubt that is still troubling you? Revealing it to the surface helps us confront it.
- Parshat Chayei Sarah (2012)
- Parshat Chayei Sarah (2011)
- Visiting the Grave of a Righteous Person
- “Orthodoxy: Exciting times, trying times”