And Sarah Laughed

And Sarah Laughed


We gathered for another morning of study together, furthering our exploration of the relationships found in the story of Abraham and Sarah.

Genesis 18:1: “The oaks of Mamre”

Having just completed the circumcision, his own, Ishmael’s, all the men in the community, Abraham is sitting at the door of his tent amongst the shade trees (odd English translations include the “plains” of Mamre or the “terebinths” of Mamre, but the Hebrew is clearly “alon”, oak) when 3 men approach. These are known in our oral tradition to be angels, actually archangels, each with his own specific task: Michael bearing the news of Sarah’s upcoming pregnancy; Raphael to heal Abraham’s wound; and Gabriel to destroy Sodom. Despite his own pain and infirmity, Abraham leaps to his feet and goes about washing the feet and making preparations to host his guests, the quintessential teaching in the Hebrew tradition of generosity and hospitality to visitors.

A teaching by Rabbi Jonathon Omerman, related by one in the group: Abraham sitting at the door of his tent indicates the practice in antiquity of deep meditation. This brings a question to mind: did this event really happen, or was the entire thing a meditative vision of Abraham’s?

Genesis 18:6: “Abraham hastened to her tent, to Sarah . . . “

The English again misleads away from an important detail, saying “the tent” rather than “her tent”. But her tent, Sarah’s tent, is separate from that of her husband’s tent. Thus, though married for over 60 years by now, Sarah and Abraham still maintain a degree of separation that allows each his/her individuality and ability to not confuse by blending the important independent roles of the Dakar (Masculine) and Nukvah (Feminine) in our tradition. We see this throughout the Hebrew tradition: HaKodesh Baruch Hu and Shechinah are separate aspects of the Divine, yet we recognize the bliss that is involved in their union; Moses could not enter his tent when Shechinah dwelt there, only when She left; Rabbi Akiva (1st century C.E.) said that a man should not enter his house suddenly – who knows what the Feminine was up to in his absence? Thus, there is a respect and honoring of the 2 different life forces, recognizing that each has its own journey, as well as relationship with each other – like the sun and the moon. Or as Kate Hepburn put it: be married, and live next to each other.

We read of the bustling preparations for the Guests, Sarah and Abraham each with their role, and the youth (Ishmael, according to the midrash, who Abraham wanted to teach how to properly treat guests), who runs off to prepare the calf for the meal. But we suddenly realize: Where is Hagar? As Sarah’s handmaiden, she would likely have been with Sarah in her tent, but there is no mention of her in this scene. But the Torah is silent, and we are left to fill in the narrative.

Genesis 18:12: “And Sarah laughed within herself . . . “

Sarah no longer experienced the “moon” of women, so hearing Michael announce to Abraham that she would have a son, she laughed within at the idea of it. The language she uses is almost the same as that used by Abraham when he laughed at the same announcement back in Gen 17:17 – shall they really bear a child, both being as old as they are? We were told Abraham’s laugh was one of joy, while Sarah’s was a laugh of skepticism, but as we considered the scene, we were not so sure of this standard interpretation.

Another question: why is the angel speaking to Abraham, giving him this news, and not to Sarah directly? The text says “Sarah was listening at the opening of the tent, behind him”. Did the angel indeed not mean for Sarah to hear this? Is this a hint that He thought better to go through Abraham, through the relationship of husband and wife, to get this news to Sarah? Perhaps he well knew that a woman of her age, experience, and wisdom would of course be skeptical! Maybe better just to let Abe know and let events happen. Scene through our modern lens, this could be seen as a sexist, patriarchal slant in the text. But it could alternatively be viewed as an acknowledgment that while Abraham was the dreamer, Sarah was the one with both feet grounded in reality, who did not need to hear such prophecy, but would certainly know when her body was carrying Isaac.

Genesis 18:15: “I did not laugh” . . . “No, you laughed indeed”

The interpretation here is usually that God is scolding Sarah for laughing. But what if that isn’t the real story? Suppose Sarah really did laugh in joy, at the realization that her life of barrenness was truly about to end. This fact of her inability to have a child had been such a burden and source of pain and anguish that she had carried all her life, and now, suddenly, freedom from that burden and the releasing laugh of that freedom. But then, having laughed, Sarah is suddenly frightened. Isn’t this what happens? When we have that release, that sudden freedom that accompanies a deep, deep insight and growth transition, isn’t the very next step doubt? Fear? We see this in the story of Pesach as well. After rejoicing, singing and dancing at the edge of the Red Sea, the next thing the Children of Israel do is start doubting: maybe we were better off in the Narrow Place after all, at least we had meat to eat, and we knew where our water was coming from.

So imagine God here as supportive therapist, rather than judgmental, scolding parent. “You did laugh, you really did, this is real, you are changing, you are growing, there really is reason for joy and laughter!” Now we see a new message: trust the laughter, trust the moments of freedom, when your spirit laughs and your soul sings.

Next meeting:

Saturday, March 19 (Erev Purim, Full moon of Adar II – a double dose of joy this year), 10 AM – noon

Location: To be determined

16th Joshua Tree Passover Village: See postings below

DATES: Thursday 4/21 – Sunday, 4/24

LOCATION: Joshua Tree National Park

Numbers: Limit is 40 participants

COST: $72 (adults and post-Bar/Bat mitzvah youth); $36 for children; As always, less than the full amount for those unable to afford full price - let all who are hungry come and eat.

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