Laughing with Sarah (Parashat Vayeira)

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.

The One Where G-d Destroys Sodom

When I was growing up, the key story to pull from this week’s Torah portion was the destruction of Sodom. Amidst the backdrop of the political movement for same-sex marriage across the United States, the story seemed to forewarn us of what would happen should any city take steps to extend civil equality to same-sex couples, let alone accept them.

I fully understand that, as with the story of the Great Flood a couple weeks ago, some people aren’t ready to put down the fear or literalism that animate these stories for them. That’s the beauty of Torah though. Different layers will speak to us. The difference of our perspectives is the point. It’s the elevation of every angle in creation, realized.

Reading Vayeira at this point in my life, Sodom isn’t the relevant feature. Neither is destruction. Both this episode and the Great Flood feel to me like ancient genres whose motifs and functionality time has eroded. The Great Flood is a Hebraic mystical retelling of a common Mesopotamian story. Sodom is an origin story for the peoples of Moab and Ammon. G-d is more or less a mechanism for making dramatic things happen in these stories. The destruction isn’t meant to instill fear of punishment. Rather the role of G-d provides an opportunity for awe and humility to deepen in our spirituality.

Put another way: we aren’t meant to fear a G-d who will punish us for having neighbors who are gay, we’re meant to contemplate the magnificence of a Creator whose creation is so vast and fatal that whole peoples can appear and disappear by forces we are powerless to stop.

Ironically then, this week’s Torah portion is thematically oriented around laughter.

By Jan Provoost – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15417197

Laughing with Sarah

In the same way that reading the story of Noah without the Tower of Babel leaves you missing the contrast between an ark built from the name of G-d and a tower built out of the ego of man, reading the story of Sodom without the story of Sarah giving birth to Isaac leaves you missing half of the big picture.

If Sodom is about trying to apply logic to the inevitable and unpredictable fatality of life on a grand scale, Sarah’s pregnancy is about laughter in the face of our individual reckonings with that existential crisis.

Our first hint of this theme comes in the way Lot’s once sons-in-law respond to his warnings about their city’s impending destruction. They laugh because they think he’s joking.

Similarly, Sarah laughs when she is told that in one year she, barren and nearly ninety years old, will give birth. Her child’s name? Isaac, or, Yitzhak, “he will laugh.”

With his birth, Sarah even says “G-d has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears of this will laugh with me.” The extraordinary and unpredictable nature of life can either leave us paralyzed in anxiety or laughing at its wildness. Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people, chooses laughter–for all of us.

This Torah portion is full of wild things happening beyond the ordinary experience of any reader past or present. Angels visit as household guests, cities are destroyed, and a barren octogenarian gets pregnant. The impulse for many readers here may be to fixate and pick these things apart so very literally, but for me, the layer to uncover here is the general sense of powerlessness and fragility to the human condition they reveal.

We could unknowingly entertain messengers from G-d. Our entire city might be blown up tomorrow. Our life and health could dramatically change at ninety. …or, more historically, whole branches of our families could be wiped out, we could be driven out of countries we once called home, viewed with suspicion and hate, blamed in bizarre and inane conspiracies…. There’s so much that’s out of our control.

And Torah dares us to laugh in the face of it. 

Maybe we are meant to view Sarah’s laughter as an affront to G-d. How dare she not have faith that she’ll get pregnant at ninety years old? I don’t think that’s the message though. I think it’s a situation like when I joke about my troubles learning Hebrew. For me, words and letters already switch order when I’m reading. Add reading Hebrew right to left, or worse, mix Hebrew and English on the same page, and eventually all I can do is laugh. I like to joke that I don’t have a disorder, I have a sense of humor that I share with G-d.

Sarah’s laughter is so meaningful–she is so in on the humor of life–that it echoes in Isaac’s name, and in that sense through the ancestry of all Jewish people. “He will laugh” is part of our heritage, all of us.

Our ancestor isn’t named “he will cower” or “he will fear.” Instead his name is a promise that he will laugh–that all of us will be laughing with Sarah–in futures just as wild and fatally unpredictable as those days recorded in Torah.

About the author

Free to Live Healthy is written by JP Mosley, a board certified health and wellness coach based in Abbeville, South Carolina.

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