R. Noa Kushner // Lech Lecha 5778
Abraham is known as a spiritual genius.
He is seen in the parasha (torah portion) scanning the horizon looking for opportunities to connect to God or something spiritual.
Famously, he sees this opportunity in the form of three people, strangers even.
Abraham sees this opportunity because he has been waiting, he has made room, he has been looking for it. So that when the strangers go by, Abraham is ready, he is begging the strangers to come in as his guests.
He asks for help from Sarah, and from his servant boy to cook a meal. Many verbs are used to explain all these preparations. And we remember that these servants will be the ones to tell him that he and Sarah will have a son. We admire Abraham’s willingness to wait, look, host, imagine an opportunity and then to sit back and receive it.
But what I noticed this week, is that after agreeing to sit with Abraham, the first thing the stranger angels ask is, “Where is your wife Sarah?”
“Where is your wife, Sarah?”
And I think this question, now that we highlight it, shows a blind spot for Abraham. Because, of course, the announcement of the birth of Isaac will not just be for him alone! It will be, actually, just as much for the person who left on this journey with him, the one who just prepared the food, the one who is right behind him in the doorway as he speaks to these angels: The message is also for Sarah.
Now Martin Buber makes a great teaching of noticing that when God asks Adam and Eve in the garden, “Where are you?” (They are hiding behind a bush after eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge – not an exceptionally clever hiding place), It is not that God does not know where they are, rather, God wants Adam and Eve to know they are hiding, to admit it to themselves.
Here too, the angels (of course!) know where Sarah is. But they want Abraham to see his blind spot. The angels want Abraham to consider: “Where is Sarah?” “Where is Sarah?” – as if to say, “You had better find out b/c the story literally can’t happen without her.”
And to that point, what follows is a strange mess of conversation where the angels tell Abraham that Sarah will have son, and Sarah hears and laughs to herself (a great moment in Torah), and God hears Sarah laughing to herself, not only hears, is offended, and as a result yells at Abraham, saying, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?”
There are so many mix-ups it is almost like an I love Lucy episode or something.
But God’s (over) reaction all underscores the absence of Sarah to begin with. If God wants to know how Sarah feels, or even yell at her for doubting God, it seems obvious that God should speak with her. Directly.
So it seems God shares the same blind spot as Abraham: God asks Abraham why Sarah is laughing.
And if the scene ended there, it would be a good teaching about massive blind spots, both human and divine. But the scene doesn’t end there.
Because when God is ranting to Abraham, Sarah is still listening, and she even answers saying, “I did not laugh.” Of course it is not clear whom she is addressing -- God or Abraham (the ambiguity seems apt) because we only get the masculine pronoun: “He.” Still, she speaks up. And then, at last last, the “he” or “He” responds, only to refute her, “You did laugh.”
For such a big meeting and announcement, it is not an awesome note to end on: “I did not laugh.” “You did so laugh.” Rather, it is strange and awkward.
But what I want us to notice is that at long last, at the very end, Sarah has entered herself in the conversation, indeed changed the direction of it, and she got there not by anyone’s invitation but simply by laughing to herself.
True, she is only there defending herself and actually, she’s lying: “I didn’t laugh.”
True, the fact that she was not really addressed properly from the beginning is never even brought into question, this large issue is not even directly addressed.
But, still, unmistakably, Sarah is at the table. She brings in a different narrative strain altogether, one that remains unresolved. Why? Because she laughed to herself, because Sarah’s laughter has the power to upset God. And while we could easily say that this God here seems to be of a surprisingly fragile ego, still, this is a God who is an observant God, this is a God who notices small things, who not only notices but cares.
So maybe the work of chipping away blind spots begins with these ideas:
If Abraham had them and God had them, we have them.
And maybe if we are the ones who are not invited to whatever table, or maybe if we notice to our shame that there are other missing voices, we can start by laughing to ourselves, we can begin by identifying the absence of a point of view, a kind of voice, even if at first it is only a private admission.
Maybe this Torah is here to teach us that if we notice, even if we are cynical at first, it matters a great deal to God, and laughter can be a precursor, a prologue – not only a comment on what already happened, but a way of defining another kind of world view, a step towards what we might laugh into being.