Thursday, October 17, 2013

Did Sarah laugh? Did Sarah deny it? The approach of the Netziv

The opening of our parsha raises a host of questions.

1)      Sarah asks, “Can I have a child with such an old husband?”  Was Sarah questioning G-d’s ability to do a miracle?

2)      G-d asks Avraham why Sarah questioned whether she can give birth at such an old age.  Sarah, however, was speaking about Avraham's age, not about herself.  True, Chazal say that G-d changed Sarah’s words for the sake of peace, i.e. so that Avraham would not be offended, but still – how could G-d utter a complete falsehood?

3)      Sarah responded by denying that she laughed.  How could Sarah make such a denial when G-d obviously knew the truth?

Here’s the approach of the Netziv:

At the end of last week’s parsha Avraham was given a prophecy that he would have a son.  Undoubtedly he shared the news with Sarah, and she accepted it -- there is no question that Sarah believed that a miracle could happen and that she and Avraham could conceive in old age.  As the Netziv puts it, Hashem could make a rock give birth if he desired!

At the beginning of our parsha, when the angels came, Sarah suddenly resumed menstruation and returned physiologically to her youth.  She was forced to re-interpret the prophecy given to Avraham.  It did not mean that miraculously she would give birth in old age, but rather it meant she would have an unremarkable natural childbirth as a physiologically young woman.    

There was one catch to her re-interpretation.  “After I have aged, I returned to my youth,” Sarah said, “But my husband is still an old man!”  If Yitzchak’s birth was to be natural event accomplished by a reset of Avraham and Sarah’s biological clocks, then Avraham should have exhibited signs of a return to youth as well.  That had not happened, leaving Sarah with questions.

Hashem’s paraphrase of Sarah’s remark was a deliberate double entendre.  In truth, Sarah’s words were a confident expression of belief, and G-d's rephrasing captured exactly what Sarah meant (G-d does not lie).  “Will I give birth at such an advanced age!” was a rhetorical question – of course not, because I am now a young woman.  However, those same words implied that Avraham’s lack of return to youth presented an obstacle.  G-d’s rephrasing, for the sake of hamony between Avraham and Sarah, caused Avraham to miss that implication.  Instead of hearing Sarah’s words as a rhetorical question, a boast of her natural ability to conceive in contrast to his own apparent lack of youth, Avraham understood her words as a real question – “Can I conceive at such an advanced age?” 

Avraham was told to confront Sarah and in his mind G-d was being critical of Sarah for questioning her own ability to conceive.  Sarah, however, never doubted that she could have a child, given her return to youth.  She therefore completely denied the charge made by Avraham.  It was not her own ability to conceive, but rather Avraham's which troubled her.  Since G-d had left Avraham in the dark as to her true meaning, Sarah chose to not elaborate further and perhaps hurt Avraham.  A simple denial was all she made, and she left it at that.

Let me end off with one other observation the Netziv makes, and this is probably the most important take-away for us.  In the pasuk (18:15) that tells us of Sarah’s denial and Avraham's insistence that she had in fact laughed, there are two “psik”s.  A psik, Rashi later (18:21) explains, signals a pause.  Sarah was faced with her husband, in G-d’s name, putting words in her mouth.  Avraham was faced with his wife denying what G-d had told him to be true.  A marital thunderstorm was brewing!  Sarah could have defended her words and revealed her true meaning at the expense of making Avraham feel inadequate.  Avraham could certainly have lashed out at Sarah for her denial.  But that’s not how either one responded.  Before either one spoke, the Torah sticks in a psik – a pause.  Time to take a breath and think.  Time to consider the impact before speaking.  Avraham and Sarah each tried to soften the blow and defuse the situation with calm.  


  1. Hi R' Chaim -
    Not sure how to contact you besides posting in a comment - do you have an email address?...there are -from time time- issues I think you would do a good job analyzing....

    Some simple questions that have bothered me:

    If all the terrible stories we heard as kids about Sodom (and Amorah) is true, why did Avraham daven for them? If he wants to daven for the tzaddikim to be saved that's one thing, but why should even the merit of Tzadikim save people who were so horrible? We don't find for instance, that anyone (Moshe) davened for Amalek to be saved on the basis of a possible few Tzadikim in their ranks...
    Also, why would Avraham think there were any Tzadikim in Sodom in the first place? He doesn't know the type of people that live there? Wouldn't he know of righteous people - they would have probably come speak to him - as he was the leader of the "Jewish" People at the time - ?!

    [A possible answer I just thought of - he was referring to hidden Tzadikim in Sodom who were too afraid to make themselves known...]

    I have to assume this topic is probably much discussed - I have not yet looked extensively in the Rishonim or beyond for this question.

    Let me know your thoughts.

  2. I have to warn you -- I check the comments here far more frequently than I bother with my e-mail at home, which I'll write out the address to in the hopes of not getting spammed - charles dot brown number 5 number 2 at gmail
    I think the answer to your first question is that Avraham, unlike you and I, had a less cynical view of human nature and truly believed in the capacity of even a few tzadikim to change an entire city. Look what Avraham himself -- one person -- accomplished!
    Amalek is a different story, as Amalek has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
    I have no ideas about your last point. Some of the meforshim learn that "tzadikim b'toch ha'ir" means they were tzadikim relative to the others in Sdom, but not on an objective scale. Maybe that's why Avraham never heard of them before. Maybe he was just speculating. I don't really know.

  3. Such a great vort!!! Had these kashas for years. Thank you!
    But still have to ask, then what was the reason hkbh intervened? If Sara didn't mean that and meant well, then what was hkbh doing? Especially causing possible Shalom bayis?!?