Parshat Vayeira has always troubled me. A quick look at the text would seem to suggest that Sara lied to Hashem. Just after one of the three angels visiting Avraham says that at this time next year Sara will have a son, the Chumash states:
Now Abraham and Sarah were old, coming on in years; Sarah had ceased to have the way of the women. And Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have become worn out, will I have smooth flesh? And also, my master is old.” And the L-rd said to Abraham, “Why did Sara laugh, saying, ‘Is it really true that I will give birth, although I am old?’ Is anything hidden from the L-rd? At the appointed time, I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sara will have a son.” And Sara denied, saying, “I did not laugh,” because she was afraid. And He said, “No, but you laughed.”
An unusual word in the text enables us to understand what was transpiring. When explaining how Sara laughed, the Torah states: וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה בְּקִרְבָּהּ. The unusual word is “b’kirba,” within herself or in her depths. Usually when Tanach relates a person’s private thoughts, the phrase used is “b’libo,” “in his heart.” Here the Torah does not say that Sara laughed in her heart, but that she laughed in herself or in her depths. It seems to me that the Torah is referring to Sara’s unconscious.
If the Torah is telling us that Sara laughed unconsciously, this explains her denial. Sara herself did not realize that deep within she harbored a doubt. This also explains why Hashem points out that Sara did indeed laugh. Hashem was not trying to get in the last word. Rather, Hashem wants Sara to understand something about herself.
Questions, however, still abound. Sara was a prophet on a higher level than Avraham (Shemot Rabba 1:1). Even accepting that Sara laughed subconsciously, are we to accept that even at the subconscious level she doubted the Creator of the Universe’s ability to cause her to give birth? It seems unlikely. So why the laugh?
Not only must we address the laugh, but what of the additional subconscious thought: “After I have become worn out, will I have smooth flesh? And also, my master is old.” What does smooth flesh have to do with bearing a child? What does Avraham’s age have anything to do with Sara being able to have a child? Although it may be unusual, it is not unheard of for a man to sire children in old age. What is Sara’s deep-seated concern? The answer is given to us in the next, seemingly unrelated, sentences.
After relating the impending birth of Yitzchak, the angels head off to destroy Sodom. The Torah then tells us that Hashem will reveal to Avraham what is intended for the cCities of Sodom. The reason given for Hashem sharing this knowledge is that Avraham teaches his family, household and all who will listen to do righteousness and justice. Hashem is setting the stage for Avraham to demonstrate his love for righteousness and justice even if this means challenging the Judge of the World. What Avraham does next, his bargaining Hashem down to saving the cities for just 10 righteous men, is intended to be an example or a teachable moment for all future generations. So, why at this juncture highlight the importance of teaching? Because it explains Sara’s fear.
Sara did not doubt that Hashem would give her a son. Nor did Sara doubt surviving childbirth. Sara had no such fear because of the language Hashem used to describe the events of the next year. When Hashem describes returning the following year, that time is called: “ka’eit chaya, this living moment.” Hashem will “return at this living moment and for Sara there will be a son.”
There is no doubt that a male child will be born and Sara will live to see it. But for how long? Sara knows she is no longer young. She even points out that she has become worn out. She may give birth, but will she be able to recapture her lost youth as symbolized by smooth flesh? Similarly, how long will Avraham be around after the birth since he also “is old”?
Sara’s deepest concern is not the birth of a child. Her deepest concern is the raising of that child. To what end is having a child if it is not raised properly? Sara is worried that neither she nor her husband may be around long enough after the child’s birth to give it a proper upbringing. This concern appears again later in the parsha when Ishmael and Yitzchak are older. Sara recognizes that Ishmael will not follow in his father’s footsteps. When Sara declares that Ishmael will not inherit with Yitzchak, she is not referring to material matters but to spiritual matters. Ishmael demonstrates that, unlike Yitzchak, he has not inherited Avraham’s positive qualities. As such, Ishmael could lead Yitzchak astray and that is why he must be banished.
At this moment of supreme joy, having being told that she will conceive and deliver a son, Sara’s deep fear about the child’s upbringing remains paramount. If her child is not going to be raised in the proper manner, then having that child is a cruel joke. Sara may not have recognized that fear at a conscious level, but Hashem understood her fear. Hashem pointed out her fear to her that she might confront it and dispel that fear. How? Her husband says it succinctly not long after: “Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?” Of course He will. Yet Sara feared for the future. Will her child be properly raised? It is a fear that Jewish parents carry to this day. May we have the same success with our children that Sara had with her son.
By William S. J. Fraenkel
William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in religion and a law degree from NYU. He has served for a number of years as the president and board member of the Young Israel of Harrison, New York (YIOH). The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.