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And Sarah Laughed

 

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Vayera and the meaning of laughter. With gratitude to Rabbi Adam Lavitt for his teaching on ednah in this week’s Creative Commentary Class for the Jewish Studio Project.

וַתִּצְחַ֥ק שָׂרָ֖ה בְּקִרְבָּ֣הּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אַחֲרֵ֤י בְלֹתִי֙ הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֣י עֶדְנָ֔ה וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן׃

And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” (Genesis 18:12).

Though I don’t visit my niece and nephew every week, the blessing of technology allows me to keep close tabs on their development. And every so often, their parents send me a video that I can’t stop watching.

Recently, there was one of Amma saying, “Thank you, Tante!” for her Halloween costume, dressed as a Rockford Peach. There is one of Milo, swaddled within an inch of his life, shaking his head from side-to-side as his mother asks, off-camera, “Are you going to sleep?” and then uttering a sound that perfectly imitates the word, “No.”

But my current favorite, the one I will subject you to if you are foolish enough to ask how my niece and nephew are doing, is of my mother singing to Milo. He’s sitting in his bouncy baby seat as my mom croons, “But I can’t help falling in love with you.”

Like most babies, Milo was grouchy for the first few weeks of his life. Mostly we’ve only seen him sleep (or not sleep), eat, furiously suck a pacifier while not eating, and cry. At almost three months old, he is starting to smile. It’s lovely.

In the video, as my mother finishes a verse, Milo lets out a triumphant giggle, if not his first, then his first recorded on video. It is a miracle. It one of the first communications he has made that is not an expression of need.

But the best part is what happens next. My mother lets out her own joyful laugh, exclaiming, “He laughed!!!” Their eyes lock, and she starts singing the next verse. He opens his mouth wide and yells excitedly, matching her pitch exactly.

I was thinking of this as I read this week’s parasha, Vayera, which tells the story of Isaac’s miraculous birth to the nonagenarians Abraham and Sarah. When an angel announces to the couple that they will welcome a child in the coming year, they both respond the same way, with laughter. While Abraham falls on his face laughing (Gen. 17:7), we read that Sarah “laughed to herself, saying, ‘Now that I am worn out, am I to have pleasure—with my husband so old?’” The word vatitzchak, and she laughed, becomes the root of the name of her son, Yitzchak.

The rabbis argue over the reason for her laughter. Rashi says laughing b’kirbah “within herself,” means she was laughing at the withered state of her internal organs. Hizkuni says she was laughing at the prospect of giving birth in six months. And many rabbis discuss whether she was laughing at the idea of her elderly husband fathering a child.

But we might better understand Sarah’s laughter by looking closely at another word in the verse, ednah, which means pleasure or delight. This word only appears once in the TaNaKh, and it has many interpretations: Onkelos, an early translator of the Torah, says that ednah refers to the pleasure of having a son. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) suggests that edna refers to the beauty of youth, particularly the return of Sarah’s once-supple skin. Medieval rabbi Abarbanel is a little more direct, saying that ednah refers to the pleasure of marital intimacy (which probably makes the most sense from the context). Slightly more poetic is the interpretation of Dr. Tammi J. Schneider, who points out that the word ednah is related to the word eden, the name of the primordial garden of delight (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary p. 88).

No matter how we read it, the word ednah gives us insight into Sarah’s laughter. As old as Sarah is—and, as we have established, she is quite old—she is surprised to learn that she can still be delighted, and delighted to realize that she can still be surprised.

Her laughter contains awe and amazement, shock and disbelief. It is a bubbling over of emotions, a reaction that cannot be contained. But most of all, it is an expression of joy.

Rabbi Alan Lew once said that, “Joy is a deep release of the soul… Joy is any feeling fully felt, any experience we give our whole being to. Any moment in our life fully inhabited, immersion in the full depths of life, can be a source of deep joy.”

It brings me such delight to realize that laughter is one of the first ways we learn to communicate.

And it also brings me delight to realize that, even as we age, laughter is our first reaction to learning that life is still full of surprises. Laughter is the sound of us remembering that, even in challenging times, even after all our accumulated years and experiences, there can still be joy.

I want to close with some verses from a poem by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, who imagines Sarah’s laughter this way:

“The lines of another story, inscribed

And reinscribed like an endless chain

A proud old woman, her face desert-bitten

Has named her son: laughter

Laughter for bodily pleasure, laughter for

         old age triumph…

…among us each son and daughter

Is the child of Sarah, whom God made to laugh.”

(From “A Meditation in Seven Days,” excerpted in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 109).

 

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz