The story of how Avraham and Sarah were visited by an angel and delivered the news that they were to have a child is an old familiar one. Looking deeply into the story, there is much more to learn from it than the typical superficial reading would reveal. Let’s take another look.
This message of a baby truly was big news, a blessing historic not only for its miraculous nature (Avraham was one hundred years old and Sarah ninety) but for the child born from the blessing, Yitzchak, the second of the patriarchs of the book of Bereshit (Genesis). Weighty though the news was, Sarah heard it and laughed.
This laughter has puzzled scholars down through the ages. Sarah was a great prophetess by her own rights, a thoroughly righteous person whose belief in G-d was untarnished. She had accompanied her husband from the land of her birth to the land of Canaan where she worked with him to teach people that there is only one G-d in the world. Thus the puzzlement; how could Sarah, a woman of such stature, have laughed at G-d’s blessing?
It appears that Sarah divined a nuance to this blessing that her husband, the incomparable Avraham, had missed. Her reaction to the event was, to put it in our words: the angel could have told Avraham that he is to have a child, or he could have spoken to me and told me that I am to have a child, but in actuality he told Avraham that I am to have a child. This order of events whispered to Sarah of a blessing with a tacit limitation. She read between the lines and understood that the blessing of a child would be temporary.
Avraham was a visionary, he “saw” transcendence, meaning, and coming events, that others around him just couldn’t perceive; this was the strength of his prophetic gift. Indeed nearby passages to this one are replete with examples of such sight; Avraham “lifted up his eyes and saw”; he saw three men (the angels) approach, he saw the place where he was to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice, and he saw the ram that was to replace Yitzchak, entangled in the bushes. Sarah’s gift however, was in hearing, a gift so important that G-d cautioned Avraham after this that, “Everything Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.” Those who have the gift of hearing hear what others miss, so much so that they can hear “between the lines”, or to put it another way, they can hear what is not being said. With Sarah’s gift she intuited that the angel was giving her a temporary blessing, limited time with the promised child.
Nowadays, in the synagogue, when the cohen’s blessing is recited, the congregation, though they avert their eyes from looking directly at the kohanim, must directly face them. Applying this principle to her present situation Sarah knew that for a blessing to be permanent it needed to be face-to-face and thus this blessing was limited.
Her response was laughter, as if to say, give me a real blessing, a son who will live a long life. In response, the angel promised her that the blessing would be permanent, saying, “Is anything hidden from the Lord? At the appointed time, I will return to you, at this time next year and Sarah will have a son.” It appears that even before Sarah had conceived her son, she had already successfully lobbied to lengthen his life.
The proof of this came years later when Avraham brought Yitzchak up to the top of Mount Moriah and prepared to slaughter him as a sacrifice, as he had been told to do by G-d. An angel appeared who stayed his hand, the same angel who had promised Sarah that Yitzchak’s life would be a full one. Right after this, the Torah tells of Sarah’s death. It is a common interpretation to say she died of shock at hearing that Yitzchak had been slated for slaughter, but it is just as proper to say that in fact she died after he had been saved, satisfied that the promise of the angel had been kept and that her son would live long. She could now die in peace.
On the Shabbos when we read a portion of the Torah in synagogue, it is customary to read a parallel story from the Prophets; in the case of this portion, the parallel passage comes from II Kings, in which the prophet Elisha blesses a prominent woman from Shunem with a child. The wording of the blessing: “At this time next year, when you will be alive like now, you will be embracing a son.” Like Sarah before her, the woman heard between the lines. Embracing? What does that mean? How long can a child be embraced? Not too long. And thus she protested, “No, my lord, O man of God, do not fail your maidservant.” She wanted a real blessing, for a child who would survive. Later, when the child was indeed born and had grown a bit, he died, whereupon his determined mother headed straight for the prophet. Arriving there she exclaimed to Elisha, “Did I ask for a son from my lord? Did I not say, ‘Do not mislead me?’ The prophet’s response was to make good on his promise by resurrecting the child.
A mother often bears the unique ability to hear rather than see, the “lay of the land”, and in so doing to intuit what will ensure the life and safety of her children. Sarah laughed, procuring a blessing that would save her child’s life; even before he was born she was protecting him. When the Shunamit woman protested, she procured a blessing that would eventually protect and revive her child, even after his death. Such is the love of mothers, that it extends beyond the edges of their children’s lives to protect them.
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