Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Liza Bernstein. Originally from Florida, Liza has taught Yahadut (Jewish studies) at camp for two summers. After graduating from Penn, Liza studied at the Conservative Yeshiva and staffed Ramah TRY. Liza is now a fellow at Yeshivat Hadar.
Sarah’s Laughter and Lie: Reflections on Parashat Vayeira
by Liza Bernstein
In this week’s parashah, Vayeira, three angels arrive at the entrance to Abraham’s tent. Upon seeing them, Abraham rushes to meet them. He tries to think of everything he can do to be a good host. He presents them with water to bathe their feet, milk to drink, and cakes to eat – in many ways, Abraham is our first example of the overbearing and well-meaning Jewish parent – can I offer you something to eat? Some rugelach? What about something to drink? Not even some water? And yet as Abraham tries to be the perfect host, his guests only have one question for him: אַיֵּ֖ה שָׂרָ֣ה אִשְׁתֶּ֑ךָ? Ayei sarah ishtecha? Where is Sarah? (Genesis 18:9) Abraham motions to another tent near them – she’s over there. It is at that moment that the angels reveal the message they have for him: in a year, Sarah will have a son.
While Sarah isn’t in their tent, the Torah tells us that she’s hovering at the edge, listening to the conversation. When she hears the prophecy of her future pregnancy, Sarah responds in a beautifully relatable way. She laughs. Me? Have a kid? That’s cute, her laugh tells us. At this point in B’reishit / Genesis, God has never spoken to Sarah. God has a relationship with Abraham – God has spoken to him, commanded him, listened to him – but Sarah has always been left on the fringes. She is an outsider, existing on the edge.
When Sarah laughs, God is perplexed. It seems as if God doesn’t understand Sarah’s reaction and in many ways God does not know how to approach her. How do you confront someone you’ve never spoken to? In this moment we witness an incredibly beautiful and tense moment of hesitation and confusion that occurs between Abraham, Sarah, and God. Sarah’s response to the angels confounds God, and instead of approaching Sarah, God turns to Abraham and asks why is she laughing? God’s confusion evolves into pain and frustration – does Sarah not believe that I, God, can perform a miracle that would allow her to give birth? When Sarah hears this response, she freezes. I didn’t laugh, she tries to tell God. And yet God knows this is a lie. We ourselves know this is a lie. Only three verses earlier, we read about Sarah’s laughter.
So why does Sarah lie? The Torah tells us she lies because she is in fear, but it does not tell us what she’s afraid of. Rashi argues that Sarah is afraid because she lied to God. This explanation makes sense – who wouldn’t be afraid after lying to God? And yet, there seems to be something deeper occurring here, a fear of more than honest regret. After Sarah lies, God provides a simple response. I didn’t laugh, Sarah says. But you did, God responds. It is in this moment that God speaks to Sarah for the first and only time in the Torah. Without an intermediary, God says: but you did laugh, Sarah. You did.
Why did Sarah lie? What was she afraid of? It seems that Sarah is afraid of more than just having lied to God; Sarah is also fearful, and perhaps in awe, of what it now means to be in relationship with God. Throughout B’reishit, Sarah follows Abraham without complaint. While we admire Abraham’s willingness to leave home, Sarah too leaves home. She leaves her family, her homeland, her entire life; all without a call from God. The intensity of this silence makes her laughter echo that much louder. How powerful is it for Sarah when her laughter causes her not only to encounter God for the first time but also to have God hold her accountable? God and Sarah’s first and only conversation offers an incredibly poignant and relevant prism for understanding our own relationships – how are we held in relation and accountable to our own concepts of God? How are we accountable to our Judaism, our communities, our families, and our world?
These questions are heavy, and God and Sarah do not offer us any distinct answers. And yet, we all know what it feels like to be held accountable through our relationships. Over the past two summers, I have had the incredible opportunity of teaching Yahadut (Jewish studies) at camp. Throughout these summers, I have gotten the chance to build meaningful and enriching relationships with campers in which I’ve held them accountable, and they’ve held me accountable in return. Two summers ago, I taught a camper how to lay tefillin, and when we were laying tefillin together a couple days later, she asked me why I wasn’t wearing a head covering. If I was putting on a tallit and laying tefillin, why wasn’t I also covering my head? She was trying to hold me accountable, and I didn’t have a good answer for her. The next summer, I came back with some headbands, and we talked about the difficulties that can occur when we realize the gaps in our values.
Camp is a place that allows us to create honest and sincere relationships. In these relationships, we’re held accountable in a way that pushes us to become better versions of ourselves. We are asked to think deeply about our values and the way we engage with those values. We question whether we are representing ourselves and our communities in a way that makes us proud. At camp, we’re given a space to become the people we want to be. In our parsha this week, we learn the importance of standing up and being held accountable, even when it’s difficult. At camp, we’re thankful for those instances of self-growth.