Vayeira: Laughter, Part 1

The first laughter in the Torah happens when God tells Abraham, age 99, that after he has circumcised himself and all the males in his household, he and Sarah, his 89-year-old wife, will have a son.

“I will bless her, and I will even give you a son from her, and I will bless her and she will become nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” (Genesis/Bereishit 17:16)

And Abraham fell on his face vayitzchak, and he said in his heart:  Will he be born to a 100-year-old man, and will 90-year-old Sarah give birth? (Genesis 17:17)

vayitzchak (וַיִּצְחָק) = and he laughed.  (From the root tzachak, צָחֲק = laughed.)

Humans laugh when we encounter a mismatch: when two things appear together that we would never expect to see in the same context.  We laugh in fun when we are surprised by a joke, or in mockery when we point out mismatched traits in a person we resent.  We also laugh

* in incredulity when a mismatch is almost unbelievable,

* in bitterness when we wish both mismatched things were true but cannot believe it, and

* in joy when receive unexpected good fortune.

In the Torah, humor is offered without a laugh track; it is up to the reader to recognize jokes and funny situations.  But characters in the Bible do laugh in incredulity, in bitterness, and in joy.

When God tells Abraham that he and his 89-your-old wife will have a baby, he silently laughs out of incredulity.  He also “falls on his face” into the prostrate posture for communicating with God,1 because he is concerned about how God is planning to fulfill the divine prophecy that Abraham will have more descendants than there are stars in the sky.2  Until this point, Abraham assumed all these descendants would come from his 13-year-old son Ishmael, whose mother is Sarah’s slave.  What if God ignored Ishmael while making these almost unbelievable plans for Sarah to get pregnant?

Abraham said to God: “If only Ishmael will live in Your presence!” (Genesis 17:18)

And God said: “Truly Sarah, your wife, will be pregnant with your son, and you shall call his name Yitzchak, and I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.  And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Hey! I will bless him and I will make him fruitful… (Genesis 17:19-20)

Yitzchak (יִצְחָק) = Isaac, in English.  In Hebrew, yitzchak = he laughs, he will laugh (from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

When God repeats his promise of a miraculous birth, Abraham overcomes his incredulity and goes ahead with the circumcisions.

Abraham Sees Three Visitors
(artist unknown)

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And he appeared”), three mysterious strangers arrive at Abraham’s camp while he is recovering from his circumcisionThe aged Abraham gets up and runs to welcome the visitors, who look like men, but turn out to be divine messengers or angels.  Abraham prepares them a meal.  The visitors eat as if they were men, and then make sure Sarah is close enough to overhear them.

And they said to him: “Where is Sarah, your wife?”

And he said: “Here!  In the tent.”

Then [one of them] said: “I will definitely return to you at the time of life, and hey!  A son for Sarah, your wife.”  (Genesis 18:9-10)

And Sarah was listening at the opening of the tent, which was behind him.  Abraham and Sarah were old, coming on in years; the periods of women had stopped happening to Sarah.  Vatitzchak, Sarah, inside herself, saying: After I am worn out, will I have sexual pleasure? And my husband is old! (Genesis 18:10-12)

Sarah Hears and Laughs,
by James Tissot

vatitzchak (וַתִּצְחַק) = and she laughed (also from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

What kind of laughter does Sarah laugh—incredulous, bitter, or joyful?  Biblical commentary is divided.  So I offer these three alternatives, in colloquial modern English, for what she might be thinking as she laughs:

  1. Incredulity:

    What an idiot this stranger is!  He hasn’t seen me, so he doesn’t know what a dried-up old woman I am.  But Abraham’s standing right in front of him, all wrinkled and liver-spotted.  Who would make an outrageous prediction like that, with a time limit, even? Only an idiot—or a prophet.3  That’s it, Abraham’s three guests are a band of traveling prophets!  Well, this is the most absurd prophecy I’ve ever heard.  You’ve got to laugh at such a ridiculous situation.

  2. Bitterness:

    This stranger may know my name, but he obviously doesn’t know my age.  I bet he was trying to give old Abraham a compliment; even a 99-year-old man likes to hear that he’s virile.  But the man overdid it.  And I bet he doesn’t know I’ve been barren my whole life, and I had to give my slave to my husband just to get a son to adopt.  That was a disaster!  Now, even if I were still young enough to have some juice, I know Abraham is past it.  I thought I was used to sleeping in a cold bed. But suddenly all I can think about is how long I’ve been alone.  No sex for years, never nursed a baby, and Ishmael never treats me as his mother.  Curse that stranger!  He doesn’t realize how much his remark hurts me.  Men are careless like that.  Even my own husband asks me to make fancy cakes for his guests, and then forgets to serve them!  Men never think of women’s feelings.  You’ve got to laugh at these jokers, so you don’t cry.

  3. Joy:

    Who is this stranger?  How does he know my name?  Does he realize how old we are?  Actually, Abraham may have forgotten to serve my cakes to those men, but he’s been running around like a man in his prime.  And not every 99-year-old man could even survive being circumcised.  Or be so cheerful about it.  Hey, Abraham even winked at me, when he told me about what he was going to do to himself, and about how God opened up our names by adding the letter hey.  Everything’s opening up now, he said.  I wonder if he was hinting that my womb was going to open, too?  Maybe when God changed our names and ordered the circumcisions, He went on and told Abraham were going to have a child?  Oh, that would be a rich joke, after I’ve been barren my whole long life!  But if God wants to play a joke on us, and give us both a second youth so I can have my own baby— well then, bring on the miracle!

Then God said to Abraham: “Why is it that Sarah tzachakah, saying: Is it really true, I will give birth, when I have become old? Is a thing too extraordinary for God? At the appointed time I will return to you, at the time of life, and Sarah will have a son.”  (Genesis 18: 14)

tzachakah (צָחֲקָה) = she laughed (also from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

Now Sarah is alarmed. How could the visitor hear her silent thoughts? Only God could do that sort of thing.  Has she just insulted God?

And Sarah denied it, saying: “Lo tzachakti!”—for she was afraid. But he said: “Not so, for tzachakte”. (Genesis 18:15)

lo tzachakti (לֺא צָחַקְתִּיה) = I did not laugh (also from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

tzachakte (צָחָקְתְּ) = you (feminine) laughed (also from the root tzachak, צָחֲק).

Then the three “men” get up and walk with Abraham to look down at Sodom in the valley below.


Both Abraham and Sarah laugh at the idea of having a baby in extreme old age.  But they keep listening to God, get over their incredulity, and accept the transformation of their lives.  Abraham is reassured to hear that both his sons will become fathers and patriarchs.  Sarah accepts her sudden good fortune,  prepared to enjoy sexual pleasure again and even nurse her own child.  We next see her in the Torah at the weaning feast of her son Yitzchak.

When you laugh incredulously, do you leave an opening for an unexpected miracle?  Are you willing to accept a new reality? Are you able to move from bitterness to joy?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in October 2010.  Next week I will post part 2, on making laughter in joy and in mockery.)

  1. See my post Korach: Face Down.
  2. In Genesis 15:5 God promised Abraham he will have more descendants than there are stars in the sky. By the time Abraham is 99, God has promised him five times that his descendants will possess the land of Canaan.  Abraham has assumed these descendants will come from Ishmael, his son through the slave Hagar.
  3. 16th-century Rabbi Obadiah Sforno wrote that Sarah assumes the speaker is a prophet giving a blessing. (Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, trans. by Raphael Pelcovitz, ArtScroll Mesorah Publications, 1993)




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