Good morning and welcome!
I want to start by sharing with you a little about my Justice Project. This past year, I talked with young people at school, in Little League and at Kol HaNeshamah about healthy relationships and how to prevent abuse. Thank you to everyone who took a stand with me for positive relationships by running the Refuse to Abuse 5K through SafeCo Field in July. My Dad and I with the help of Ilene Stohl organized workshops during Yom Kippur to continue the conversation, thank you for participating!
Alhough my official Tikkun Olam project wrapped up at High Holy Days, I also asked the congregation to bring warm winter wear here today. We will take these warm winter items to the Duwamish Longhouse for delivery to the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. The Water Protectors are preparing to camp at Standing Rock through the winter, and will really be able to use this winter gear. Thank you for everyone who was able to bring an item today. Now more than ever, we need to find ways to take care of each other.
I want to take a moment before I start my d’var, to thank you all, my congregation, my family and dear friends for celebrating my Bar Mitzvah with me and encouraging me to take on the responsibilities of the Jewish people. I want to thank my giant family–especially my parents and brothers for guiding me to be the person that I am and for keeping me on my toes. I would like to thank my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins—and my dear friends–who traveled from near and far–for supporting me and being a friendly face to cheer me on today. I would like to thank my teachers from Hebrew and secular school for teaching me to be, at least what I think of as, a smart kid. I would like to thank Andrea for helping me with my dvar, Eddie for helping bring fun to the party, and thank all the people who participated in my justice projects, and my family and friends who let me interview them for my l’dor v’dor project. I would like to thank Rabbi Zari and this congregation for encouraging me to be the best Jew I can be. Thank you to the Ensemble for your beautiful music and for everyone who helped set up today and my Bnai Mitzvah class for pushing me through the final stretch.
Finally, I would like to thank my lifelong friends for always being there for me and for teaching me how to take a joke.
The Torah portion for this week is Vayera.
My main focus this morning is this episode in the Book of Genesis where Sarah laughs and what her laughter means for us.
In this parasha, Sarah was listening in the entrance of the tent when she hears Abraham’s guests say that she will give birth to a baby. When she heard this news, she laughs to herself.
In studying this section, I came across many questions sparked by this laughter: Was Sarah’s laugh an insult? Was it delight? Was she laughing at Abraham? At God? At herself? What does her laughter mean?
My first question was, straight up, why did Sarah laugh?
Commentators offer many possible explanations. In Genesis 18:12, “Va-titzchak Sarah be-kirbah” is usually translated “Sarah laughed to herself.” Esther Shkop interprets Sarah’s laugh as a bitter laugh. She writes: “Sarah knew the joy of Yitzak’s birth would be cloaked in tragic and difficult implications.”
The rabbis traditionally interpreted Sarah’s laugh as an expression of doubt. In his commentary, Rashi says, “From this we learn that Abraham had faith and rejoiced, whereas Sarah had no faith and sneered.”
An article in Psychology Today called “Why We Laugh” gives a few explanations for what makes people laugh. One is that people laugh when they are nervous, scared, or uncomfortable. Some people believe this is why Sarah laughed. What could she have been nervous about? Maybe she was afraid that she and Abraham would not be able to take care of a baby in their old age.
The theory that stood out to me is the incongruity theory. This theory suggests that when someone is telling a story, our brains predict what is going to be said next. But then when something happens that doesn’t check out with our predictions, we laugh. Sarah’s laugh may have been a response to the incongruity of a 90 year old woman giving birth.
In my opinion, when Sarah heard the men’s prediction, she heard “incongruity.”
She thought their prediction was ridiculous. Abraham has not told her that God promised him Sarah would have a son. And remember, Sarah did not know the men were angels. It seemed absurd to her that they would say she would have a baby.
Ruth Wisse teaches that even when we have perfect faith in G-d, humans still have to deal with the absurd space between what we can observe with our own senses and G-d’s plan. Humans have to deal with the incongruity.
Now I want everyone here to put themselves in Sarah’s shoes (or her socks or sandals – I don’t know what she was wearing). Imagine you are a 90 year old woman, who has just scrambled around to prepare a meal for your 100 year old husband and his three visitors. You weren’t invited to eat with them, so you are hanging around, out of view, trying to figure out who are these random guys eating up your goat and milk and fresh bread anyway. And then, these complete strangers, blabbing with your husband, say you are going to give birth to baby in a year. Are you going to think, “Heck, yeah! Now I shall have a baby!” OR are you gonna think, “Who are these wise guys?” You probably think that they are con men.
Or maybe these poor guys don’t know how babies are made, right? You might think they were ridiculous. You might even laugh.
That is what Sarah does. Sarah laughs and says to herself, “…“Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” G-d asks Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the Eternal?” Sarah says “I did not laugh,” and then we read the only words in Torah spoken directly to her by G-d: “Ah, but you did laugh.”
Most commentators argue back and forth: She laughed in bitterness. No, she laughed in joy. But there is a third possibility that makes sense to me: She laughed because it was funny.
Speaking of funny…
According to the Pew Research Center, 42% of American Jews consider having a good sense of humor an essential part of being Jewish. On the other hand, only 19% said observing Jewish law was essential.
Humor is a revered tradition in Jewish life.
Since Sarah’s generation, Jews use laughter as a comfort in scary times, as a defense against oppressors, and as a way of holding on to a particular Jewish point of view in a very not Jewish world.
In America, Jewish humor is outsider humor. My grandparents’ generation had Lenny Bruce who sorted the world into Jewish and Goyish. My parents had the SNL Hannukah Song. My generation has The Goldbergs.
Being an outsider means that you are not part of the most powerful part of the society. You are not the one making the rules of society, but you are affected by those rules. In my Torah portion, Sarah is the outsider. She listens to the conversation between Abraham and the angels from outside the tent. She is not invited into the conversation, but it has major consequences for her life.
G-d’s reaction to Sarah’s laugh is interesting, as well.
To me, G-d sounds offended by Sarah’s laugh, even defensive. G-d asks, basically, “What, is there anything I can’t do?”
Even though G-d confronts Sarah, she isn’t punished for laughing. She still gets the baby she had been hoping for her whole life. Maybe her laughter made sure she got her baby. Maybe her laugh was like a dare, and the challenge made G-d really want to make good on the promise.
Jewish humor is known for making fun of powerful people and authority figures. The Encyclopedia of Humor Studies states that, “Jewish humor, while diverse, favors wordplay, irony, and satire, and its themes are highly anti-authoritarian, mocking religious and secular life alike.” Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, a scholar of Jewish humor, argued that Jewish humor focuses on defending the poor against exploitation. So rabbis, the rich, and other people with power were joked about by Jews in the shtetels and by Jewish comedians today.
I think this is a tradition we can trace all the way back to Sarah: if you can laugh at something G-d says and even G-d can stand it, then there is no one on earth who is too big or too powerful for humor.
And maybe that is what G-d learned in this parasha as well.
Maybe G-d learned that, if you are going to hang out with humans—especially if you are going to spend thousands of years with Jewish humans– you are going to have to learn how to take a joke.