We often pay more attention to the beginning of a portion than its end. One of the things I like about the triennial cycle is that I am ‘forced’ to pay greater attention to all parts of each week’s portion and sometimes find things I might not have otherwise.
This week, I’m consumed with two questions, the first of which goes something like this: Why does everyone seem to know that Sarah laughs when she’s told she’ll have a child as a nonagenarian but the parallel story about Abraham is often ignored?
Before I get to question number two, let’s try to conquer this one.
1. Perhaps it’s because we read the Sarah portion on Rosh HaShanah each year so a critical mass of the Jewish people are more likely to hear about it from their rabbis at least once or twice over the years of their High Holy Day attendances.
2. Perhaps it’s because Sarah’s story is at the beginning of next week’s portion rather than at the end of this one. I haven’t done a statistical analysis (where’s Nate Silver when you need him?) but my impression is that the classical commentaries tend to concentrate their calligraphic efforts more towards the beginning of the traditional Torah portions rather than the ends or middles.
3. Perhaps Sarah’s confrontation with God is more dramatic, associated with the initially ambiguous status of the three guests she must feed at her husband’s demand. They only reveal themselves as divine messengers AFTER Sarah giggles at the idea that she’ll get pregnant at her advanced age. She has every reason to believe that her ‘laughter’ is a private matter only.
God’s interaction with Abraham towards the end of our portion this Shabbat is more direct and subtle than that with Sarah next week, a conversation and a command.
Since many have not noticed this story, let me paraphrase it briefly with my own commentary.
Because of her barrenness, Sarah has given her handmaid, Hagar, to Abraham so they can have a child through her. All is well until Sarah, so generous at first, feels belittled by the pregnant Hagar. Sarah makes Hagar’s life miserable and so the pregnant handmaiden escapes only to be convinced by an angel to return, assured that her son will be the leader of a great people.
God gives Abram a name change to Abraham and commands the covenantal sign of circumcision on him and all his male descendants.
Then God tells Avraham that his own wife’s name is no longer Sarai but Sarah. This is an incredibly powerful name change and it’s presented almost as though it was always her name but Avraham had been saying it wrong.
Here’s Genesis 17:15 “God said to Avraham, ‘Sarai your wife shall no longer be called Sarai because Sarah is her name.’” It implies that Sarai had been, in a sense, a nickname. The word Sar in Hebrew can mean minister; in the case of a woman, it might be translated as ‘Princess’ or ‘Woman of great standing.’ Up until now, says God, Avraham has been calling his wife, in essence, ‘My Princess.’ God alerts Avraham that from now on, she’s her own woman.
But there’s more.
God then tells Avraham that he will have a son with her. Avraham falls on his face in prayer and laughs to himself, ‘Will a 100 year old father have a child? And Sarah 90?’ (At least he got her name right after 80 years of saying it the other way. It takes some of us years to let go of nicknames for people who would like to be referred to by the name their parents gave them.) So that’s his private thought, much like Sarah’s which earns her a rebuke next week (“Why did Sarah laugh?” God will demand.) What Avraham says out loud to God is “Let Yishmael live before you!”
God responds, “No, your wife Sarah will give you a son and you’ll call him laughter (Yitzchak) ….”
Unlike Sarah, God doesn’t rebuke Avraham but indicates implicitly that the laughter was heard. One can anthropomorphically almost see God winking at Avraham, “You think I didn’t hear you, but I did!”
That brings me to the second question: Many wonder why Yitzchak of all the patriarchs doesn’t get a name change. After all both his father Abram and son Jacob do. Most modern commentators note the relative sedentary nature of Yitzchak compared to the swashbuckling activities of his dad and son. After all, Abraham leads an army and fathers many; Jacob has two wives and two concubines and from him we have our 12 tribes. Isaac, on the other hand, has twins and stays with one woman for his whole life.
But the Jerusalem Talmud (Brachot 1:6) begs to differ. It notes that Abram and Jacob were so named by their parents. Only divine fiat gave them the name changes to Avraham and Yisrael.
Isaac is the only one who was named by God already before he was even conceived. Twice.
Let’s not forget the first time.
• • •
Shabbat candles should be lit on Fridays, October 23 at 6:36 p.m., October 30 at 6:28 p.m., November 6 at 5:20 p.m., November 13 at 5:14 p.m., November 20 at 5:09 p.m. and November 27 at 5:06 p.m.
• • •
Editor’s note: Cantor David Lipp, the cantor of Congregation Adath Jeshurun (Conservative), has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Communit