Vayeira for Tweens: Laughing

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24

Parashat Vayera opens with a visit to Abraham from messengers who bring predictions of Isaac's birth. Abraham stands up to God to protest the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the former of which Lot must flee. Abraham pretends Sarah is his sister because he fears a jealous king would kill him in order to acquire his beautiful wife. Isaac is born and begins to grow. Sarah observes Isaac playing with Hagar's son, Ishmael, and in her own fit of jealousy, banishes mother and son. The final scene in the parashah is Abraham trying to fulfill God's request that he sacrifice his son Isaac.

In the fourth aliyah, Sarah gives birth to her son, who is named Isaac (from the word for "laugh"). Abraham is 100 years old, and Sarah is also of advanced age. Sarah responded understandably to the news of her impending motherhood.

"God has brought me laughter; all who hear will laugh with me." (21:6)

Sarah's words seem to foreshadow the basis for Isaac's name, although this perception is not made explicit. God instructs Abraham that he will name his son Isaac in Parashat Lech L'cha, before the messengers ever visit him:

"Nonetheless, your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, whom you shall call Isaac, and I will establish My covenant with him and his descendants after him as an everlasting covenant." (Genesis 17:19)

What does this name signify? Is the laughter joyful, amazed or mocking? Who is laughing?

In the Jewish Publication Society's translation, Sarah seems amused at her good fortune, almost jolly and proud. She feels that people will join in her amazement at the miracle that she has experienced. Robert Alter's translation reads

Laughter has God made me,
Whoever hears will laugh at me.

Alter explains, "The ambiguity of both the noun tsehoq ("laugher") and the accompanying preposition li ("to" or "for" or "with" or "at" me) is wonderfully suited to the complexity of the moment. It may be laughter, triumphant joy, that Sarah experiences and that is the name of the child Isaac ("he-who-laughs"). But in her very exultation, she could well feel the absurdity…of a nonagenarian becoming a mother. Tsehoq also means "mockery," and perhaps God is doing something to her as well as for her. "All who hear of it may laugh, rejoice, with Sarah, but the hint that they might also laugh at her is evident in her language." (The Five Books of Moses, 102)

In her first act as a mother, Sarah kicks Hagar and Ishmael out because she observes Ishmael metzachek (from the same root as Yitzchak, or Isaac). Our translation reads playing, and many commentators speculate about the way Isaac and Ishmael played that led to Sarah's discomfort and disapproval. Alter disagrees with this translation and instead renders And Sarah saw the son of Hagar…laughing. He proposes that this is the same kind of mocking laughter which Sarah anticipated towards her. Taking any kind of risk in our personal lives also can cause us to fear what others might think. Other people's reactions to us do matter, and they do influence the way we see ourselves. In the picture Robert Alter paints, Sarah is afraid she will become a mockery. Could even a child's laughter cause her to feel so ashamed she would have him punished and exiled? Alternatively, Alter suggests that the verb indicates acting like Isaac: "Sarah sees Ishmael presuming to play the role of Isaac, child of laughter, presuming to be the legitimate heir." (103)

Just as tears can indicate both joy and sadness, laughter has two sides. It can bring people together or put one beneath the other. It can be generated by a healthy perspective or a mean spirit. When Sarah initially reacts to the news of her conception of a child, she laughs inwardly (18:12), and her amusement is followed by a touch of fear. When God asks Abraham why Sarah laughed, "Sarah then denied it, for she was afraid..."(18:17) At times of transition into a totally new way of life, of unexpected accomplishment or good fortune, it is possible to experience both joy and fear. Consider the prospects of purchasing a new home, holding a new child or opening a new business. Each event can be justifiably met with giddy excitement and sinking trepidation. Laughter can encompass a wide spectrum of emotions.

The complexity of Isaac's name, "to laugh," and Sarah's feelings surrounding the birth of her son epitomizes the content and context of this parashah. Vayeira is filled with scenes that illustrate uncertain first steps and missteps: Abraham's confrontation with God, the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, the deception and confusion surrounding the incident with the king Abimelech, the birth of Isaac and the exile of Hagar and Ishmael, and the binding of Isaac. In just one month since we began with Sefer B'reishit we have moved in 20 generations from Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah, from creation to destruction to recreation, and we have entered into several covenants with God. For some readers of Torah this pace may seem laughable, but Torah continues to have the last laugh. It has captured our imagination and our attention once again.

To Talk About

  1. Sarah laughed at herself. What are some events that have caused you to laugh at yourself? When is it good to be able to laugh at yourself?
  2. Sarah's story demonstrates that laughter can be used in different way, to convey different emotions and sentiments. What are some different types of laughs? How do they sound? What do these different laughs mean?
  3. When people laugh at other people, a joyful sound can cause great pain. What do you think can protect people's feelings from this kind of mocking?

For Further Learning

Why do people laugh? Do you think Jewish humor has a distinct character? Watch some comedy together and identify the elements of the humor. Is it self-deprecating, observational, critical? Does it in any way make you uncomfortable? How do you think Jewish humor has evolved over time?

Reference Materials

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 122–148; Revised Edition, pp. 121–148; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 85–110

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