Not a Laughing Matter
by Miri Korbman
In this week’s Parsha, we learn about what might as well be known as the “laugh heard around the world.” Three angels disguised as desert nomads come to visit Avraham and, in a surprising plot twist, tell Avraham that (18:10) in one year from that time, Sarah will have a baby boy! Sarah, listening at the tent keyhole, laughs - the pasuk (18:11) says, “VaTitzchak Sarah BiKirbah,” and Sarah laughed to herself, wondering how it could be that she could possibly give birth in her old age.
Yet, God is not impressed; He asks (18:13-14), “Lamah zeh tzachakah Sarah?” What are you laughing at, Sarah? Is anything impossible for Me? Of course you can have a child if I will it to be so! Curiously, the Pasuk tells us the rest of the exchange. First, Sarah denies it, saying, “I did not laugh,” but God responds, “no, but you did laugh!” (18:15).
What is happening in these Pesukim? Does Sarah Imeinu really think she can lie to God about having laughed, when clearly He is all knowing?
Rav Yossi Cohen Shlit”a once told me a powerful idea from Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin regarding Sarah’s laughter. Rav Tzadok says that when Sarah denied that she laughed, what she really meant was, “God, I was not laughing at You – of course You are all powerful! Rather, I was laughing at myself,” as Rashi notes (18:11), “my body, aside from being old… I do not have a womb and am not able to bear children!” But Hashem responds, “no, Sarah – you laughed at Me, because when you laugh at yourself, you are in essence laughing at Me.” Man, who was created in God’s image, whose every move, every step, and every heartbeat, is willed by Me, has no right to laugh at himself. To dismiss one’s own abilities, one’s own worthiness, is to dismiss God’s omnipotence, to discount His strength and power – and His love for us.
Similarly, Rav Immanuel Bernstein explains according to Ramban that Sarah’s defense of her laughter was meant as a defense of the situation itself; Sarah and Avraham did not know that these men were anything more than men, strangers who benefitted from Avraham’s gracious hospitality, who may have wanted to bless their hosts, however outrageous the blessing. Sarah’s laughter is nothing short of the kind of amused response many of us might have in a similar situation – we’ve all been the recipient of a well-meaning but simultaneously humorous blessing from an Israeli taxi driver or Tzedaka collector (they do give the best Brachos, don’t they?). And yet, Ramban explains, Sarah is held accountable for laughing because regardless of who delivered the message, the important thing was for Sarah to recognize that anything is possible.
Rav Bernstein provides another possible understanding of Sarah’s laughter, however. Sarah laughed “bikirbah,” inside herself, meaning that her laughter was really in her thoughts, and her incredulousness and skepticism was actually not something of which she was completely aware. The pasuk in Tehillim (94:11) states, “Hashem Yodeah Machshavos Adam Ki Heima Hevel.” Rav Moshe Chagiz explains this to mean that Hashem knows the thoughts of man while they are still Hevel, nothingness, that is to say, not yet fully formed.
In modern psychological terms, we would call these “automatic thoughts.” A term coined by Dr. Aaron Beck, father of cognitive therapy, an automatic thought is the immediate, almost instantaneous first thought that comes up for us in response to a situation, as a result of our beliefs and feelings about ourselves and others. According to R’ Chagiz, Hashem recognizes how we feel about ourselves, our most automatic, barely conscious thoughts, before we are even fully cognizant of them. As such, when Sarah insists that she didn’t laugh, it is not that she is denying what God has said, but rather, she actually wasn’t fully aware of her laughter until Hashem, who recognized the seed of self-doubt within her before it fully materialized, pointed it out to her. Even that tiny seed of self-doubt, however, needed to be uprooted, by Hashem’s rebuke.
Laughter is an incredible gift, and as such, must be wielded with care. Laughter heals, it lightens, it uplifts; it is the greatest medicine, but it can also be poisonous. When directed at ourselves, when used as a means to deflect, to defend against discomfort, or to put oneself (or others) down, it can be quite dangerous. Laughing at oneself is nothing more or less than a tangible automatic thought, a knee-jerk reaction rooted in self-doubt. We may not even recognize the thought of, “yeah right, not in a million years!” that comes up for us, but it is there. And, critically, as Rav Tzadok points out, self-doubt is intrinsically linked with, G-d forbid, a lack of trust in God.
This week, let us channel our laughter into building up, strengthening, and inspiring others and ourselves. Let us take ourselves, and God, more seriously, and rejoice in God’s ability to do anything, and reflect upon how His infinite power inherently means that our potential is limitless. This week, catch yourself before you make a self-deprecating comment – while the world might think it in vogue to “stop taking yourself so seriously!” and insist that you “have to laugh at yourself sometimes,” you don’t. This week, find humor instead in the ways in which you get in your own way, the insidious nature of your self-defeating automatic thoughts – let them crack you up, double over laughing until you gasp for breath, for the biggest joke of all is the thought that we, as children of Hashem, are anything close to a laughing matter.