“A day without laughter is a day wasted,” Charlie Chaplin.1 “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand,” Mark Twain. “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward,” Kurt Vonnegut.
This is just a smattering of things that have been said throughout history about laughter. I’m sure there are plenty more than just these that I found quickly at BrainyQuote.com. The truth is, there is almost nothing better in our lives than good laughter. Joyful, full-throated, lose-control laughter changes anything and everything for the better. This wonderful kind of laughter doesn’t come at another’s expense; it’s not sarcastic or angry. This laughter is pure joy, which I find is often best when I’m laughing at myself.
When the angels come to Abraham, one of them tells him, “I will return to you at this time next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18:10). We are told that Abraham and Sarah are both of advanced age, and that Sarah is long past menopause, and yet there is this announcement of the birth of their son. As I read this, Sarah’s response is the most natural a person might have. After all the years of barrenness, after the stressful and difficult experience with Hagar, after all the difficulties she has experienced in her life, now in her nineties she is given this promise. What else is there to do in the face of such news but to laugh? I believe her laughter is joyful and full of wonder, and perhaps there is a reasonable measure of doubt thrown in as well.
Our ancient rabbis weren’t so pleased about Sarah’s laughter though. In last week’s parashah, Abraham is told that Sarah will become pregnant and bear a son who will be named Yitzchak (from the Hebrew root, tzadi-chet-kuf, meaning to laugh). Abraham falls on his face and laughs. To this verse, Rashi comments, “This one [the word vayitzchak] Onkelos translates, happiness and rejoicing, whereas [the word vatitzchak] concerning Sarah he interprets as laughter. You may learn [from this] that Avraham believed [the prophecy] and rejoiced but Sarah did not believe, and ridiculed. That is why God was angry with Sarah but was not angry with Avraham” (The Metsudah Chumash/Rashi, Bereishis).2 Rashi contends that Abraham’s laughter was joyful while Sarah’s was derisive. Abraham falls on his face laughing; Abraham keeps this information all to himself; Abraham questioned whether Sarah was even capable of giving birth at her advanced age, in effect, mocking her, yet the rabbis accept his laughter but question hers.
Sarah laughs b’kirbah, which has been translated as “inwardly” (in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 88)3, “to herself,” or as Rashi puts it, “she looked at her insides (i.e., she realized the aged condition of her body) and said, ‘is it possible that these insides can carry a child, that these shriveled breasts can draw milk?’ ” (The Metsudah Chumash/Rashi, Bereishis).4 The commentaries base their disapproval of Sarah’s laughter on Genesis 18:13–15 where God asks Abraham why Sarah is laughing (when nothing is beyond God’s capacity): Sarah responds directly to God saying, “I did not laugh”; and God responds directly to her saying, “Ah, but you did laugh!”
As I read this though, Sarah’s laughter seems just as joyful and faithful as Abraham’s. What I see in these two moments is that God gave each of them the news in a way that they could each enjoy it alone. This child will be a gift to both of them, they will conceive and raise him together, yet they still each must process this information personally and privately. Abraham was alone with God and had the freedom to fall down and laugh out loud, but Sarah’s experience was different. She overheard a conversation (that it seems she was meant to overhear) in which this information was revealed, and so she laughed in her own way. Inwardly, quietly, to herself, or at herself—it doesn’t much matter to me which of these ways she laughed, just that she laughed. She laughed for the joy of receiving the blessing of a child after being denied for so long. She laughed at the miracle this birth would be. She laughed at the idea of the sexual experience she would enjoy with her husband conceiving this child. And she laughed at her poor old body experiencing pregnancy so late in the game.
As many people do when they are caught at something, she denies it. I imagine her denying her laughter while at the same time struggling to wipe the smile off her face, perhaps even snorting a little from the effort. But that lie brings her a reward. It brings her a direct communication from God. I imagine God trying to hide a smile as well when calling her on the lie, the way a parent does when he or she catches a young child in a small lie or a moment of absurdity. If God were truly angry with Sarah, this prophecy may have been rescinded or she would have been punished in some way. It seems to me that God rejoices at her laughter and rewards her with more.
In Genesis 21:6 Sarah says, “God has brought me laughter; all who hear will laugh with me.” Of course Isaac (Yitzchak) is named for all this joy that he brings. As Stephen King said, “You can't deny laughter; when it comes, it plops down in your favorite chair and stays as long as it wants.” And really, why would you ever deny such a good laugh or the joy that Sarah experiences?
1. For quotes from Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Stephen King, see www.brainyquote.com
2. The Metsudah Chumash/Rashi, Bereishis, ed., Rabbi Avrohom Davis(Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, NJ, 1993), p. 167
3. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed., Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, assoc. ed., Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), p. 88
4. The Metsudah Chumash/Rashi, Bereishis, ed., Rabbi Avrohom Davis(Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, NJ, 1993), pp. 180–81, including note 84
Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker serves as the rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, WA.