The midrash asks
Why was Sarah granted a son only in her old age, after she had nearly despaired of having
a child? It was to be a lesson for future times; a sign for all coming generations. If anyone
should give up hope that God will ever rebuild Jerusalem, he would be told, " äÇáÌÄéèåÌ
àÆìÎàÇáÀøÈäÈí àÂáÄéëÆí åÀàÆìÎùÈÉøÈä úÌÀçÍåÉìÆìÀëÆí ëÌÄÍéÎàÆçÈã ÷ÀøÈàúÄéå åÇÍàÂáÈøÀëÅäåÌ åÀàÇøÀáÌÅÍäåÌ:
Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you (Isaiah 51:2). As God
rejuvenated Sarah in her old age, giving her children, thus will God do to Jerusalem. God
will bring about its redemption in a supernatural manner.
The British war time prime minister, Winston Churchill invited the Hasidic Rabbi of Gur
to come and see him and advise him on how to bring about Germany's downfall. The
Rabbi gave the following reply: "There are two possible ways, one involving natural
means and one involving supernatural. The natural means would be if a million angels
with flaming swords were to descend on Germany and destroy it. The supernatural would
be if a million Englishman parachuted down on Germany and destroyed it." (Hasidic
Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach)
I will say with perhaps just a touch of postmodern irony, that today we might be more
likely to reverse the midrash and say, if anyone should ever give up hope that Abraham
and Sarah were real, that Israel's soul was built by our ancestors whom we read about,
should desire to look to Abraham your father and Sarah who bore you, look to Jerusalem,
whose shining walls, in which we again hear the voice of the groom and bride and the
youths in the street, look to the redemption which has already begun, in the most
supernatural way one could imagine.
Similarly, Midrash rabbah offers an interpretation of Sarah's gving birth:
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LIII:1
1. AND THE LORD REMEMBERED SARAH AS HE HAD SAID (XXI, 1). It is thus
that Scripture writes, And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord have brought
down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made
the dry tree to flourish; I the Lord have spoken and done it (Ezek. XVII, 24). AND THE
LORD DID UNTO SARAH AS HE HAD SPOKEN. ‘And all the trees of the field shall
know’ refers to the people, as you read, For the tree of the field is man (Deut. XX, 19)1 '
These verses from Ezekiel refer to the blossoming of Jerusalem as well, that Zion shall
be rejuvenated. But it isn't simply that Jerusalem has been rebuilt, but that there is still
work to be done: it is not enough for a miracle to happen, but as we know from
Chanukah, it's a requirment that the miracle be publicized.
Of coure, everyone knows that Jerusalem has been reborn, but how many people think of
it as a miracle - even among Jews?
But I want to focus on two instances of laughter, both from Sarah.
è åÇéÌÉàÍîÀøåÌ àÅìÈéå àÇéÌÅä ùÈÉøÈä àÄùÑÀúÌÆêÈ åÇéÌÉàîÆø äÄðÌÅä áÈàÍÉäÆì: é åÇéÌÉàîÆø ùÑåÉá àÈùÑåÌá àÅìÆéêÈ ëÌÈòÅú
çÇéÌÈä åÀäÄðÌÅäÎáÅï ìÀùÈÉøÈä àÄùÑÀúÌÆêÈ åÀùÈÉøÈä ùÑÉîÇòÇú ôÌÆúÇÍç äÈàÉäÆì åÀäåÌà àÇÍçÂøÈÍéå: éà åÀàÇáÀøÈäÈí åÀùÈÉøÈä
æÀ÷ÅðÄéí áÌÈàÄéí áÌÇéÌÈîÄéí çÈãÇì ìÄäÀéåÉú ìÀùÈÉøÈä àÉøÇç ëÌÇðÌÈùÑÄÍéí: éá åÇúÌÄöÀçÇ÷ ùÈÉøÈä áÌÀ÷ÄøÀáÌÈäÌ ìÅàîÉø
àÇÍçÂøÅé áÀìÉúÄé äÈÍéÀúÈäÎìÌÄé òÆãÀðÈä åÇÍàãÉðÄé æÈ÷ÅÍï: éâ åÇéÌÉàîÆø éÀäåÉÈä àÆìÎàÇáÀøÈäÈí ìÈîÌÈä æÌÆä öÈÍçÂ÷Èä ùÈÉøÈä
ìÅàîÉø äÇàÇó àËîÀðÈí àÅìÅã åÇÍàÂðÄé æÈ÷ÇÍðÀúÌÄé: éã äÂéÄôÌÈìÅà îÅÍéäåÉÈä ãÌÈáÈø ìÇîÌåÉòÅã àÈùÑåÌá àÅìÆéêÈ ëÌÈòÅú çÇéÌÈä
Beresheit 18:9. And they said to him, Where is Sarah your wife? And he said, Behold, in
10. And he said, I will certainly return to you at this season; and, lo, Sarah your wife shall
have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him.
11. Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well advanced in age; and it had ceased to be
with Sarah after the manner of women.
12. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am grown old shall I have
pleasure, my lord being old also?
then, later, we read:
ä åÀàÇáÀøÈäÈí áÌÆïÎîÀàÇú ùÑÈðÈä áÌÀäÄåÌÈìÆã ìåÉ àÅú éÄöÀçÈ÷ áÌÀðÍåÉ: å åÇúÌÉàîÆø ùÈÉøÈä öÀçÉ÷ òÈùÈÉä ìÄé àÁìÉäÄéí
ëÌÈìÎäÇùÌÑÉîÅòÇ éÄÍöÂçÇ÷ÎìÄÍé: æ åÇúÌÉàîÆø îÄé îÄìÌÅì ìÀàÇáÀøÈäÈí äÅéðÄé÷Èä áÈðÄéí ùÈÉøÈä ëÌÄÍéÎéÈìÇãÀúÌÄé áÅï ìÄæÀ÷ËðÈÍéå:
3. Abraham called the name of the son that was born to/for him, that Sarah had borne
him, Yitzchak (He will laugh/laughter)
5. And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born to him.
6. And Sarah said, God has made me laugh, so that all who hear will laugh with me.
7. And she said, Who would have said to Abraham, that Sarah should suckle children?
For I have born him a son in his old age.
The midrash offers interesting commentary on Sarah's laughter.
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LIII:8
8. AND SARAH SAID: GOD HAS MADE JOY FOR ME; EVERY ONE THAT
HEARS WILL REJOICE WITH ME (XXI, 6). R. Berekiah, R. Judah b. R. Simon, and R.
Hanan in the name of R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: If Reuben has cause to rejoice, what
does it matter to Simeon? Similarly, if Sarah was remembered, what did it matter to
others? But when the matriarch Sarah was remembered [gave birth], many other barren
women were remembered with her; many deaf gained their hearing; many blind had their
eyes opened, many insane became sane. For ' making ' [HAS MADE òÈùÈä] is mentioned
here, and also elsewhere, viz. And he made a release to the provinces (Est. II, 18). As the
making mentioned there means that a gift was granted to the world,l so the making
mentioned here means that a gift was granted to the world.
The midrash asks, why should anyone othr than Sarah be happy and rejoice? It's normal
for humans that they feel happy when they themselves gain something, but not when
someone else does.
The answer that the midrash provides is that in fact, there was a reason for rejoicing, that
at the same time as Sarah gave birth, many other people were given reason to rejoice;
illnesses were cured, other women who had been barren gave birth; when Sarah was
noticed by God, the world in general received a gift.
There is another midrash that explains that the gift wasa identified by the name that their
child was given: rather than reading Yitzchak as "laughter" the rabbis read that "éöà ç÷
yatza hok" Law had gone forth to the world, a gift was made to the world.
But we know, of course, that law had not yet gone forth to the world. Although the rabbis
believed that our ancestors even prior to Sinai themselves observed the laws, even if we
accept that, certainly it had not yet gone forth to the world.
So what could this gift have been?
(Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LIII:7
I want to draw our attention to another midrash. This midrash also focuses on the later
laughter of Sarah. After Sarah says, "God has made laughter for me..." she continues,
perhaps in explanation of the statement, åÇúÌÉàîÆø îÄé îÄìÌÅì ìÀàÇáÀøÈäÈí äÅéðÄé÷Èä áÈðÄéí ùÈÉøÈä
ëÌÄÍéÎéÈìÇãÀúÌÄé áÅï ìÄæÀ÷ËðÈÍéå: "she said, 'Who would have said îÄìÌÅì milel to Abraham, that Sarah
should suckle children? For I have born him a son in his old age."
The rabbis point out that contrary to normal usage, the Torah doen't use the word amar or
diber for "said," but rather the extremely unusual word milel.
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LIII:9
As we know, the Torah uses its words very precisely and sparingly. If it uses an unusual
word, we are meant to notice something about the statement.
The wordîìì mem lamed lamed is a word in Hebrew for speech, but it also has a number
of other meanings. It can mean to stitch together, and it can also mean to wither or fade.
In aramaic, the word is mil'la, which also means embers or gold ore.
I'd like to suggest that Sarah used this word very purposefully. When Sarah laughed for
the first time, hearing that she would give birth, she asked, " now that I am worn out, I
will have pleasure?"
Now that indeed, she has given birth she is using a word that is related to the word
éÀìÅì or éÀìÈìÈà
which means uluation - the trllling noise middle-eastern women make in times of both
joy and sorrow.
So the first of Sarah's meaings is personal: her withering: malal îÈìÇì has turned into
uluation y'lala éÀìÈìÈà .
The second meaning is universal:
God wished to give a gift to her, Sarah, but this gift was a gift for the world as well.
Sewing in many cultures was traditionally women's work, and so Sarah used a sewing
metaphor to speak of this gift to the world: God embroidered into the world a new thing:
Yitzchak - Isaac- was traditionally understood to have invented afternoon prayers -
minchah. This was drawn from next week's portion in which when Rebecca comes to
meet him for the frst time, he is out in the field having sichah - conversation or
supplication - in the late afternoon, with God. The rabbis saw Yitzchak's gift as bringing
law to the world, but although he was great, I think that perhaps this was not the gift that
he brought. The gift that Isaac brought was one of relationship with God. Remember, this
is the Isaac that was perhaps traumatized all his life by his near slaughter for God. And
yet, he was able to have a loving relationship with God. His relationship with God was
not one of testing and trial, but of calm sureness and contemplation. His relationship with
Rebebcca, too, was greater than those of either his father or his sons: he took no other
wives, and he is the first of whom we hear åÇéÌÆàÁäÈáÆäÈ vaye'ehavehah - and he loved her.
Sarah stitched Yitzchak out of her own heart. God embroidered for her a son who would
give a gift to the world: his gift was -unlike Abraham's hot fires, îÄìÀìÈà . Embers: warm,
burning, but not out of control; a campfire to warm your self by, not a forest fire that
burns everything in its path.
Today, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the future of the people of Israel, can seem
more like fire than embers. Today we look at Israel and see the clashing fanaticisms on all
sides: not just between religions, but among them as well. Is it possible that the future of
Judaism really lies with wilfull ignoring of history and other peoples? Can it really be that
God wishes us to cut ourselves off fromt he rest of the world? I highly doubt it.. In
thinking about our future, we should indeed, "Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah
who bore you (Isaiah 51:2)" We have there two models. There is the model of Abraham's
singlemindedness. Rabbi David Hartman in his book A Heart of Many Rooms, talks
about the Akedah model of Judaism as one in which submission and surrender must be
total. But there is another mode as well, exemplified by Sarah. In this model, Judaism is
a religion of surprise and joy: the model in which laughter of incredulity and disbelief, of
one's vision of the future being bleak and even truncated, becomes laughter of hope
turned to reality.
This is Sarah's milel: withering turned to jubilation. Israel, and Judaism, too, has
these modes. Submission to God's commands is important, but it is not a whole
relationship. Abraham and Sarah are both needed for our relationship with God. There is
no Judaism without commitment to mitzvot, but therecan be no commitment to mitzvot
without the possibility of the futuree being different form the past, and joyful surprise
around every corner. When you leave here today, take on a new mitzvah. DO something
for God you've never done before; perhaps it will bring you laughter, too.