Commentary for Vayeira

21 Nov

This week’s parshah opens with Abraham and Sarah receiving a visit from three angels who inform them that, in one year’s time, Sarah will bear Abraham a child. Sarah is skeptical, due to the extremely advanced age of those involved, and responds to this news by laughing to herself about the clear impossibility of such a thing. Sarah’s laughter is recorded in Gen 18:12, and is immediately followed by God asking Abraham “why is it that Sarah laughed, saying: ‘Shall I really bear a child though I have aged?’ Is anything beyond the Lord (Gen 18:13-14)?” This is one of just four places in the Torah where God asks someone a direct, non-rhetorical question, and all four of those questions are rebukes. This one seems to differ from the others, however, in that unlike the others (Adam in Gen. 3:9, Cain in 4:9, and Balaam in Num. 22:9), the person being rebuked here appears to be being rebuked for the actions of another.

In reality, God is not rebuking Abraham for Sarah’s conduct, but rather for Abraham’s own conduct that helped cause Sarah to react the way she reacted. The reason Sarah reacts with incredulity here but Abraham does not is because this is not the first time Abraham has heard this news. At the end of last week’s parshah, God tells Abraham that within the next year Sarah will bear him a child, and Abraham reacts almost exactly as Sarah does, laughing skeptically at the concept of a ninety-nine year old man and a ninety year old woman conceiving a child, when they could not even manage to do so in their younger years (Gen. 17:17). God tells Abraham that it will happen; a miracle will occur, and he and Sarah will finally be able to conceive the child they have desired for so long. One would think that Abraham would rush home to tell Sarah the excellent news, but as her reaction upon hearing it announced shows, Abraham did not do so.

Usually when God tells someone important news, they are meant to share it with those involved. This happens all throughout Moses’ interactions with both the Israelites and the Egyptians, and throughout the stories of the prophets, some of whom seem to be tasked almost exclusively with bringing news of an upcoming Divine punishment that will only be averted if the people cease acting wickedly. Perhaps the most famous instance of someone trying to avoid sharing God’s news with those involved is Jonah, who attempted to flee rather than inform the inhabitants of Nineveh that God would destroy them if they did not cease their wicked ways. While no explanation for Jonah’s actions is given in the text, Radal posits that Jonah was concerned that if the people of Nineveh did repent as God desired and thus God did not punish them, Jonah would be accused of prophesying falsely, and that people would assume that the reason no punishment came was not because of the people’s repentance but rather because God either did not exist or lacked the power to punishment, and as a result, God would be denigrated in the eyes of the people of the world.

It seems odd that someone who has spent a lifetime putting his faith in God’s promises would suddenly start to doubt them; so perhaps a mindset similar to Jonah’s can be ascribed to Abraham here. He had no problem preaching to the world about the existence of God when he could hold up a loaf of bread and say that it was God who was to thank for the existence of the bread, but when put in a position where he would have to prophesy this seemingly impossible conception, he was worried that should no child be conceived, people would start to doubt God’s power and Abraham would be undoing all of the work God had commanded him to do.

As a result of his doubts, Abraham did not tell Sarah about this news, so when she heard it now she too expressed her doubts. It is important to note that Sarah’s doubts were the very same doubts her husband expressed when he first heard the news, and like her husband, she is rebuked (in Gen. 18:15) both for her skepticism and her attempt to hide that skepticism.

Both husband and wife are now aware of the other’s skepticism of this prophecy, and yet they do indeed conceive a child together, showing that together they were willing to at least give God’s promise a chance. This is the lesson that we learn from Abraham and Sarah: it is not our job to worry about whether the fulfillment or lack thereof of God’s promises will make God look good. Our job is to do what is required of us for the fulfillment of those promises and have faith that God will deliver on the rest.

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