Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Between Men & Women

The couple, in our tradition, most reflective of a loving relationship is Avraham and Sarah. The Talmud tells us that their union was so strong that even in death they were not separated (Bava Batra 58a). Yet the marriage of Avraham and Sarah, like all good marriages, had its moments of conflict. Last week we read where Sarah tells Avraham " I am furious at you....let Hashem be the judge between us". And this week Avraham is upset when Sarah insists that he get rid of Hagar and Yishmael. Its only when Hashem tells him to listen to Sarah that Avraham comes to accept her will.

But its not those passages I want to explore with you this week. But rather a troubling section at the beginning of the reading. There at the outset of the parsah of Vayeira we read that Avraham offers hospitality to three angels disguised as travellers. One of the angels was sent by G-d to tell Sarah that in a years time she would have a baby. Avraham already got the good news 3 days earlier at the same time that he was told of his requirement of mila, the ritual circumcision (last weeks reading). Its not clear from the text whether he informed Sarah of their good news but one would surmise he did. Nonetheless the angels come to deliver the news first hand to Sarah.

Yet, as we read the story, though the angels asked for Sarah they are not given access to her directly. Avraham tells them that she is in the tent. With no alternative the angels deliver their message to Avraham telling him that in a year's time Sarah will give birth to a son. Meanwhile, the Torah tells us, Sarah is standing at the opening to the tent and she hears the news. Her response, "And Sarah laughed to herself saying after I have grown old will I yet be desirable and my master (Avraham) is old as well".

This is a private laugh. The Torah tells us "Sarah laughed to herself..." and in any case no one heard her. She was alone at the entrance to the tent. Yet the angel finds problem with Sarah's laugh. He tells Avraham "Why did Sarah laugh saying can it be that I will yet give birth when I am so old." ( Though the Torah says this in the name of G-d most commentaries say it was the angel who spoke for G-d).The story concludes with Avraham confronting Sarah about her laugh. Sarah denies having laughed saying "'I did not laugh'....because she was afraid". And Avraham says to her "Indeed you did laugh". And that ends the episode.

There are many questions we need to ask about this story. First okay Sarah laughed, big deal.
Three days earlier when Avraham got the new from Hashem the Torah says " And Avraham fell on his face and laughed. And he said in his heart ' Can I really become a father at 100 and Sarah become a mother at 90'". Why was Avraham's laugh acceptable but not Sarah's. Second, how is it that Sarah denies her laugh. I understand she was afraid, but to lie a blatant lie? And then further, if she did lie in denying the laugh,why does Avraham go on to challenge her. Whats the point in embarrassing her? He is her husband and yet he seems to be acting like a repudiating parent.

And most importantly we would do well to wonder whats the point of the Torah giving us the story? What's the lesson in it for us? It seems peculiar at best.

I believe the key to understanding the story and its meaning is recognizing that at its core this is a story whose dynamics are rooted in gender. Avraham was male. Sarah was female. The idea of finally having a child with Sarah was wonderful for Avraham, a dream come true. For Sarah it was much more consequential. Little doubt she had died a 1000 deaths over the many years of their marriage each time her period came and she realized she was not pregnant. For her, as for most women, not having a child engenders a huge sense of failure and shame. She was so pained by her baroness that she asked Avraham to sleep with another woman (Hagar) just so she might have a child to raise as her own. By the time she was 90, no longer fertile, she had mourned her tragedy....and moved on. It was so painful to accept but she at last must have made some peace.

Now the angels come and she over-hears that she is going to have a child. Yes both Avraham and Sarah laugh when each gets their news...but look at the difference in what they are thinking.
Avraham's laugh is accompanied by the thought " Wow, can it be at 100 I will yet be a father (again) and Sarah at 90 be a mother". Its the laughter of joy and it invokes no criticism from Hashem.

What thought accompanies Sarah's (private) laugh on hearing the angel's words? She says "How can it be? My body is already worn (no longer fertile). Will I yet be desirable to my husband? And he too is old". Sarah laughs an anxious laugh. She wants to believe but struggles. One of the great Torah commentaries explained that Avraham and Sarah were no longer physically intimate. She was no longer attractive to him. She could not imagine how in practicality this baby was to be conceived. Sarah's doubt is reminiscent of Yaakov's inability to believe his sons when they return from Egypt and tell him that Yosef is alive. He grieved all these years. It meant so much to him...he was afraid to believe that it could really be . He was afraid lest he suffer a disappointment he could not bare.

Sarah's laugh is not the laugh of Avraham. Its the laugh of a woman afraid to believe for fear that if she trusts and she is disappointed she will not survive. This isn't just a wonderful gift for her. This is life and death. She wants to believe, desperately. But dare she?

It is to this that the angel speaks when he says to Avraham " why does Sarah laugh saying 'can I really give birth as I am so old'. Is anything too wondrous for Hashem to do. Next year at this time I will return and Sarah will have a son". The angel is not criticizing her. On the contrary he is making effort to reassure her, which was his purpose for the visit in the first place.
He is telling Sarah she can trust and not be afraid. The baby will come.

And so when we reach the end of the story and Avraham confronts Sarah on her laughter, Sarah denies the laugh. And why? Because "she is afraid". She is afraid that her private laugh that now is clearly known, that doubt that she expressed out of years of frustration and longing, will now cause her to lose this last chance at a child. She is afraid that the laugh will ruin everything...All seems so fragile and unreal to her...She fears what was promised will now be taken away.

It is to this that Avraham says " Indeed you laughed"saying thereby to his beloved Sarah, "Yes you laughed and its okay. This is real. We are going to have our son. And neither your laughter nor anything else will take him from us. You need not be afraid. Your redemption is at hand".

If we understand the story this way it speaks to the love between Avraham and Sarah. They each wanted a son. But the meaning it had for each of them was very different. Avraham already had Yishmael and even had he not, having a child was a gift. For Sarah, as for many women, it had the import of life and death. Avraham had to come to understand Sarah's anxiety. It was the same anxiety that according to a medrash caused Sarah's death when she feared Yitzchak was being killed at the akaida.

In my reading of the story Avraham does not chastise Sarah at the end. Rather he comforts her. feeling for her anxieties and worries.
Husbands and wives need to understand that though many times they want the same thing it does not mean that it has the same import to both.
Love is based on respect and respect is based on the appreciation of the unique mindset of the other. Its not enough for couples to say "we want the same things". That may well be true but it isn't enough to prevent serious misunderstanding. What priority do those things have for each of you? how critical? and for what reasons?

Yes, Avraham and Sarah are the ideal couple. But they too had to do the work of building intimacy and trust. Even at the ages of 100 and 90 and after perhaps 70 years of marriage they were still learning each other and growing together. That's not a bad thing. That's what gives life meaning. We would do well to invest in our marriages with similar resolve.

Shabbat Shalom

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