Halloween is a holiday of masquerades and disguises, a time of playful exploring and giving oneself an alternative identity. It is an evening of devilish and subversive laughter, of transforming the self – so appropriate to what Sarah had to do to imagine and then once again become a young fertile woman capable of giving birth. Giving birth, more precisely, to Yitzchak, to laughter itself, to an expression of pure joy. As Sarah says after she gives birth (Genesis 21:6) “God made me laugh, so that all who hear will laugh with me”
Parshat Vayeira: Genesis 18:1-22:24
To my daughter Rachel who informed and so inspired this commentary and whose new book, Female of the Ruse: Deception and Divine Sanction in the Bible, has just come off the press. See also Rachel Adelman, “On Laughter and Re-membering” in Nashim 8 (2004), 230-244. However, I take full responsibility for what I have written.
“What is comical…is the subjectivity that makes its own actions contradictory and so brings them to nothing.” G. W. F. Hegel
This is one of the most important sections in the Torah for the Jewish people. It is a compilation of multiple stories, as are the various series we watch on Netflix or the intertwining plots of novels. In a very short space, those stories include:
- The visit of the three strangers to Abraham (Avraham) and the revelation that Sarah would have a son;
- Sarah’s laughter at the promise;
- Abraham’s bargaining with God over Sodom;
- The story of Lot, his two virgin daughters and his wife who became a pillar of salt;
- The daughters sleep with Lot and give birth of Moab and Ben-Ammi, the patriarch of Ammon;
- Abraham tells Egyptians that Sarah is his sister who becomes a concubine of Abimelech, king of Gerar;
- Birth of a son, Isaac (Yitzchak), to Sarah;
- Circumcision of Isaac at 8 days old;
- Story of Sarah casting out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness;
- Hagar’s weeping and God’s promise to Hagar;
- Covenant between Abraham and Abimelech;
- Sacrifice of Isaac: , הִנֶּנִּי
This is then followed by the Begats, including the birth of Rebeccah to Abraham’s nephew Bethuel, as the transition to the next parsha.
In an earlier blog I referred to the half lie that Abraham told the Egyptians, that his wife was his sister (she was his half-sister), but he did not tell Abimelech that Sarah was his wife. In this blog, I will concentrate on the visit of the three strangers who promise that Sarah would have a son and then an analysis of her response – inner derision. But I will also jump ahead to one aspect of the sacrifice of Isaac – the Akeida – and, unfortunately, skip the rest.
Chapter 18 begins with a revelation when Abraham is resting in his tent recovering from his own circumcision. Just after he was initiated into the covenant with God in the last parsha, he was personally directly promised by God that he and Sarah would have a son. He rolled over in laughter at the craziness of the idea that he and Sarah, at their ages, could conceive and give birth to a son. At the beginning of this section, three men appear before Abraham. (I will ignore the connection and disconnection between this story and the three wise men who appear before the parents of Jesus in the manger as told in the Christian New Testament.) They are usually interpreted to be three angels, in Midrash – Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. Abraham prostrates himself before them, insists he is their servant and invites them in for food and a fresh bath. He prepares a feast of the finest of his produce and herds.
As the three feasted, Abraham is asked where his wife was. Were they there eager to take advantage of her? Was that why Abraham prostrated himself before them to appease them? Evidently not. For one of the men (angels?) said that he would return in a year and Sarah, who for decades had been barren, in her old age would give birth to a son. This was a promise that God had already conveyed directly to Abraham. Clearly, this message was intended for Sarah who stood hidden in the doorway of the tent, but not in the line of vision of the guests. Sarah, as it is told, laughed inside. Her private and unshared laugh contrasted with that of Abraham when he received the prophecy earlier and guffawed openly and publicly because he thought that his bearing a son at his and Sarah’s age was ludicrous and just the biggest joke that he had ever heard. In this passage, when Sarah heard the prophecy, she did not just see it as a joke. Instead, in her heart she mocked the idea that she, well beyond the age of giving birth to a baby, and Abraham, who was also old, could give birth to a child. Sarah was rebuked, not simply for laughing to herself in derision, but then for lying when she denied that she had laughed.
My daughter in her commentary on this section asked, “Why is Sarah rebuked for having laughed, when Abraham responds similarly with impunity?” God addressed Abraham directly. But it is not clear who rebukes Sarah who was the one who laughed inwardly at the idea, who chuckled inside instead of convulsed on the floor. Among the interpreters, there are three possibilities about who rebuked Sarah – God, one of the angels or Abraham. In the first interpretation, God insists that no miracle is too hard for Him. Sarah denies then that she laughed at the idea, but God insists that he knew that she laughed even though it was a silent mockery. In the second interpretation, the rebuke comes indirectly from God via an angel and God never addresses her directly. In the third interpretation, it is Abraham who rebukes her (Ramban). In all three interpretations, this would mean her transformation was not a self-transformation, but one mediated by another. But an angel lacks such power. And certainly Abraham does. Onlt God could both know and facilitate the transformation.
The story then suddenly turns away to the men leaving and heading for Sodom. Somehow there is a connection between the denial of the responsibility for laughing and the destruction that will be meted out to the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Recall last week in the commentary on the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, that there too Eve denied what she had done. But for her, it was an overt act. For Sarah, it was just an inner thought and a smile within. But the issue is really not whether what they did could be seen. Sarah and Eve, instead of taking responsibility for how they responded to a commandment, tried to hide their response, cover it up. So Sarah represents a continuity, a refusal to own up to what she did. Are they both passive aggressors, indirectly hostile towards God and His control? After all, God controls her destiny, was responsible for her barren state and now the prospect of giving birth. On the other hand, Sarah represents embodiment, someone who discovers in her old age that she has a body and what it is for. Laughter, after all, is the expression of the joy in life, of celebration for life’s riches as when Proverbs 31:25 says, “she laughs unto the end of days.” But laughter can also be cruel and punitive.
There is another link to the Adam and Eve story. In the latter, Adam saw Eve as a projection of himself. He did not recognize her as an individual, as an Other with desires of her own. And he did not recognize his body as his own but projected it as an Other. He disowned desire in both ways. In this story, it is Sarah who had done the projecting. She sees her own body as barren and projects that infertility onto Abraham. Just as Adam reduced Eve to a projection of himself, Sarah now sees Abraham as a projection of herself. Whereas Adam denied Eve subjectivity and agency, Sarah now does this not only to herself but to Abraham as well. Instead of defining herself in terms of unlimited and unboundaried desire, she has compressed herself into an empty vessel incapable of giving any type of birth. However, whereas both Adam and Eve felt ashamed and engaged in a cover-up, there is no suggestion that Sarah did. Though she initially did not take responsibility for what she did, she could not have transformed herself miraculously into a fecund woman if she had not.
With this foundation, we can jump to the last few stories that circle around and then the famous tale of the Akeida, the sacrifice of Isaac. Is Sarah punished for her inner mockery, for she dies after the Akeida in the next parsha, but Abraham and Isaac do not? The commentators are all over the place on this event. Was she punished then for how she greeted the promise or because she kicked out Hagar and her son Ishmael into the wilderness? Or did she die content knowing that she had served God’s purpose in giving birth to Isaac and that she had always had faith in both God and Abraham, so much so that she left Isaac in Abraham’s hands, knowing and trusting that he would be protected by God when he went out of the household to sacrifice Isaac? Or did she die as a sacrifice for her son, becoming the real substitute for the sacrifice? The ram was only symbolic.
ust re-enact the subsequent scene of the ostensible sacrifice. Abraham has been commanded by God to give up his long-promised son as a sacrifice. Isaac is only told by his father, but willingly accompanies him knowing at least that something is up and that he is at risk. Yet he goes quiescently. Sarah gets the situation without having been told by either God or her husband. Does she think she was being punished for mocking God’s promise? Why is she not described as going into a hysterical fit as her husband and son leave on this ominous journey? Some say she was punished for her lack of belief. Others say she was rewarded in heaven for her stoical performance, a much more difficult role than that assigned to Abraham.
I think the key clue to understanding the story and Sarah’s role in it is comprehending the meaning of her inner mockery. When we mock someone – in this case the someone is God – we smile on the outside and feel contempt on the inside. We are duplicitous. In Psalm 2:4, it is written that, “He who sits in the heavens smiles, God mocks him.” So if you are in an argument with a raving person who shows no respect for factual evidence or logical reasoning, one may respond with a smirk even more than a smile. Inside you feel only contempt for that person. Was this Sarah’s response to the three men or angels who came by and whom she heard promise Abraham that she, Sarah, would have a baby within a year?
But how is it alright for God to engage in mockery of man? Further, why is God’s mockery aimed at those totally self-contented with themselves as if they were in perfect heaven? Perhaps the three men were neither angels nor even wise men, but men who had perhaps witnessed that Abraham had been given the promise by God and they were taking advantage of the situation and enjoying their indulgence at Abraham’s expense. Further, how could God ever engage in making fun of someone else or even just mentally doing so? Does not justice require empathy and understanding rather than a secret put-down? Is not a just woman one who is forthright about what she sees and hears and not duplicitous about her own feelings and thoughts?
If rolling on the floor laughter is positivity, derisive laughter is negativity. Rebuke and overcoming of that negativity is a negation of negativity and laughter becomes the instrument of the lightness of being, of spirit.
So what are we to make of the original derisive laughter? Is it the case, as they say, that falsehood is the coin and ideological fabric of public life? After all, it is not clear that Abraham has told Isaac where they are going and why, because Isaac asks where the sacrifice is. On the other hand, though Isaac could easily resist his elderly father, he cooperates fully in being tied up and put on the altar. So there is not only an issue of the moral perspective but of the facts, of truth itself. It is not sufficient that Isaac be saved by an external and contingent miracle. There must be a facing of the truth, a very deep understanding of the miraculous, a way in which truth can once again be aligned.
Recall as well that we are in an axial period of transition from a shame to a guilt culture. In mocking the message, Sarah reveals she belonged to a shame culture. While Abraham when he arrived in his new land refused a gift of land lest he be beholden to another and shamed into submission, insisted on buying the land via a contract with terms clearly spelled out. Sarah challenges the shame culture, but in a radically different and even more profound way. For once rebuked, she rebukes herself. God’s voice is her own. She rises to the occasion, transforms herself, accepts the miracle of the promise and fully realizes herself as a sexual and fertile being. This is a true realization of subjectivity, of an elevation of the self and of self-consciousness. Objectively, the transformation is impossible. Nor is the transformation the result of any inter-subjective relation with another person in love or out of friendship. It is a process of self-transformation. But it is not without cost. For when her son, her only son, is taken away to be sacrificed, the pain becomes too much. In a perverse way, she died because she laughed. Abraham and Isaac both survive the Akeida, but Sarah does not. This was the cental message of my play, “Kill Yourself Laughing”.
Sarah was reborn in order both to become pregnant and to give birth. She became fertile and no longer barren because she was enabled to overcome the boundaries and, literally, give birth to real laughter, not scorn and derision, but laughter that is shared. Instead of dying and being reborn, Sarah is reborn, gives birth and then dies. She is the foundational sacrifice on which the Jews will build a nation.