Rabbi Joseph Kanofsky, Phd
There’s a lot about laughter in this week’s parsha and next, and a lot about children. But it’s not in the combination you might usually expect…the laughter of children. Rather, having children is shown to be a very difficult and challenging process here, and the laughter is not necessarily of joy or happiness. In fact, the opposite is the case; the laughter we encounter in this week’s reading might be seen as a bitter laugh in the face of an incredible promise.
Let’s see what happened:
Gd makes a promise to Avraham with this expression: “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name will be Sarah. I will bless her, and I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will give rise to nations, rulers and rulers of people shall come from her.”
That’s this week’s parsha. Now next week, the promise is repeated, not by Gd this time but by the visitors, who say “Where is your wife Sarah? And Avraham says, “there, in the tent.” One of the travelers says, “I will return to you when life is due, and your wife Sarah will have a son. . .” and the Torah notes that Sarah was listening, and she overheard this.
Now what’s their reaction? Avraham’s reaction in our parsha is that he “threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah have a child at 90? And Avraham said to Gd, “Would that Ishmael live in your favor!” in other words, I’m happy with what I have! Let Yishmael be the one! (by the way, it’s probably not coincidental that we’re reading this in the week of Eid al Adha, one of the major muslim festivals, which commemorates, according to many interpretations, Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael.). Anyway, back to the reactions: Sarah hears, and it says “She laughed to herself, saying “now that I am old and withered, am I to have such an enjoyment? With my husband so old?
And in each of these two cases, Gd has a response: to Avraham He replies: “Still, Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you will name him Yitzchak and I will keep my covenant with him eternally for his progeny. As for Ishmael, I hear you, I will bless him, but I will keep my covenant with Yitzchak, who Sarah will bear for you next year.” The irony here is that Yitzhak or Isaac, as we render it in English, means “He will laugh,” tzahak, to laugh.
And about Sarah’s laughter, Hashem also reacts: He asks Avraham: “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wondrous for me to do? I will return to you in a year, and Sarah will have a son.”
So Sarah and Avraham both laugh when they hear Gd’s promise, and murmur something to themselves about this being too much to believe, or too impossible. The commentaries have sought to explain the laughter; sometimes as mocking, sometimes as relieved, sometimes as proud—“would Gd offer this miracle to anyone else?” as Rashi interprets. Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor, one of the first Tosafists of medieval France, says that Gd’s instruction to name their child Yitzhak, he shall laugh, was a subtle reproof to the parents who laughed and said it couldn’t be done.
I saw yet another explanation from one of the professors of Tanach at Bar Ilan, Eliezer Toitou. He explains that the laughter is a bursting forth of the tension that people of faith feel, people like Avraham and Sarah. They knew that Gd could do anything. Yet at the same time, they felt that the promise had already been fulfilled in some measure by Ishmael’s having been born to Hagar; maybe this would be the son who would carry their line forward. Yet Gd promises yet another son, which is almost too much to believe, even for people who are real believers. So the laughter is not exactly scornful, it’s not dismissive, and it’s not really joyous either. It rather expresses the emotional and spiritual tension of a person of faith living in practical world.
So we’ve got to find ourselves on that spectrum, and ask ourselves where we are on the continuum of faith and skepticism. From the story of Avraham and Sarah you see that no one is at the extreme, and that even people of great faith experience tension in believing something that seems to them beyond the realm of possibility.
The question remains as ever: what are we doing to see that the vision comes true? They say that everyone talks about the weather but on one does anything about it. Well, that’s not the case at all with the Torah’s view of the world.
We are upset at hunger, so we invite people to eat with us. We are saddened by poverty, so we give tzedaka daily to share what we have. We are disappointed by illiteracy, so we raise our children to be literate and thoughtful and educated, and to influence others in that same way.
And the same is no less true for the problem of infertility. There are many reasons why couples are not able to have children, and thankfully, in our day medical technology has greatly increased the possibility for many who want to have children to do so.
I was on a panel many years ago at the Association for Jewish Studies annual conference, which are all the professors of Jewish studies from North America and now Europe and Israel. The panel was about women in the haredi world, I was speaking about education, and the woman who spoke before me was talking about her studies of the culture of assisted reproduction in Israel. I hope you’ll be glad to know that Israel is one of the most generous governments in the world when it comes to underwriting the very great costs of assisted reproduction, but they seem to do so gladly and enthusiastically. This woman whose name is Susan Kahn later published her findings as a book titled Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Reproduction in Israel, and she details a number of fascinating insights into the process, not the least among them the communities of support that grow up involving women in that situation, the various halachic and rabbinic concerns and how they play themselves out, and issues of Jewish identity in religious, secular, and political contexts, which continue to play themselves out.
I just want to mention the burden that Jewish couples outside of Israel experience bear financially when they are trying to conceive; and to get your sympathy for the effort and commitment they put into trying to raise the next generation of Jewish children.
I want to bring to your attention to a community initiative here in Toronto called Small Wonders, which has as its mandate supporting Jewish couples who are experiencing infertility. They do this with making funding available, as well as emotional and other types of support, and I want to suggest that this is a very worthy cause for you to support. They have a website at smallwonders.ca, and Alan and I are both friends with the executive director, who was a colleague of ours at federation. Since we’re mentioning it, I happen to know that in Dallas, there is a similar fund to support Jewish families experiencing infertility; because my sister started the fund and is still on the board; and she told me last week that after a few years of being up and running, last year they celebrated the birth of the first baby conceived with the help of this fund, called Priya.
So there are many ways to fulfill the mitzvah of “be fruitful and multiply,” and I would definitely say that helping families in this situation is one of them. Let’s not laugh, not out of derision and not out of desperation; let’s simply do all we can to bring more Jews into the world.
Mazel tov to the parents and grandparents of_________, who received her Jewish name today, and Shabbat shalom