Vayera: Sarahs laughter echoes in our celebrations

Genesis 18:1-22:24

2 Kings 4:1-375-30

This week's extraordinary parashah contains one of the most delightful verses in the entire Torah. Early in the parashah, we read of the angels' visit to Abraham and Sarah's home, announcing that the 90-year-old Sarah will give birth. Upon hearing the announcement, Sarah, of course, responds as any sane person would. She laughs.

She explains her laughter one way; God interprets her laughter another way. Then Sarah tries to deny that she laughed at all.

But later in the parashah, just after Isaac's birth, Sarah laughs again.

"Sarah said, `God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.' And she added, `Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children! Yet I have borne a son in his old age'" (Genesis 21:6-7).

It is a simple shout of celebration, a mother giggling at the utter absurdity and miraculousness of her prayers being answered at this late stage of her life. This is the sound of pure delight. One can hardly read this verse without smiling.

But for the midrash, this laughter is more than one woman's expression of joy at her son's birth. This laughter echoes around the world. Listen to how the miracle of Isaac's birth grows even larger in the midrashic imagination.

On this day, when Sarah's prayers for a child were answered, "many childless women conceived along with her, many sick people were healed on that very day, many prayers were answered along with hers, and there was much laughter in the world" (Midrash Rabbah).

Yet another version of the midrash extends the flow of miracles even more specifically.

"Many childless women conceived along with her, many deaf people were able to hear, many blind people were given sight, many insane people were cured of their illness." The commentary goes on to note that Sarah's miracle "added to the light" — that is, the awe that people felt over the sun, moon and stars.

I, for one, do not take this midrashic image literally. On the same day everyone in the world was healed of whatever ailed them? My imagination cannot stretch so far. So is the midrash mere pious nonsense, or is there some other way that we can understand its poetry?

There is a way in which times of personal joy and healing may open our hearts so that we can more fully perceive the joy and healing available to others. I remember vividly that when my daughter was born, I understood for the first time in my life that there are many, many people in the world who have loved a child with every fiber of their being. For a time, I went around thinking, "There is more love in the world than I ever realized!"

When we cry at a wedding or kvell with pride when a friend's child reaches bar mitzvah, when we cheer for our child's soccer team or even say "Amen" to someone else's prayer of thanksgiving, we move beyond our personal sense of celebration. We connect with the reality of joy, growth and healing that are present in the world, connecting us far beyond the details of our own joy, deepening our connection to the entire human family.

And what about the part of the midrash that says that Sarah's miracle expanded the awe that people felt over the sun, the moon and the stars? According to one interpretation, one of the miracles that happened the day that Isaac was born was that the people of Sarah's generation experienced a shift in perception.

Many people in those days might have looked at the sun, moon and stars, and then dismissed the celestial bodies' wondrousness, saying, "That's just the way of the world. That's just attributable to the laws of nature." (Sound familiar?)

But when everyone learned what had happened to Sarah, their eyes were opened to the presence of miracles and wonders in nature and in their own lives. This miracle so captivated people's imagination that it taught many to regard their lives with awe. In this sense, Sarah's blessing was shared with many, many others.

May we laugh along with Sarah this week, rejoicing in the blessings of our lives, and seeing wonders everywhere.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at