We all know the story so well. Abraham sits in his tent and sees in the distance three people. He calls them to join him and prepares a feast. After asking where his wife was they respond, “‘I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. Sarah laughed (תִּצְחַק) to herself”. She is a rationale and reasonable and has no expectations that this can happen. Nevertheless the miracle did happen and Isaac (יִצְחָק) to remind us of that laughter Sarah laughed and which we have passed from generation to generation. You may say though at this point that this week’s portion of the Torah is “Lech Lecha” and that I am ahead of the game as all of this belongs to next week’s portion of the Torah. Maybe.
Sometimes we are prisoners of stories which we know just a portion of and what we remain with is that portion or the narrative that we or someone else has the interest that we shall maintain. One of them has to do with Isaac’s name. Some of, may be most of you, will giggle uncomfortably when I present to you that it was not Sarah who laughed first about the possibility of her conceiving a baby. In fact it was Abraham who laughed first, in our very own portion of the Torah of this week. It is said so without trying to cover this fact even though we tend to associate that moment of disbelief as belonging only to Sarah. “Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.’ Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed(וַיִּצְחָק), and said in his heart, ‘Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh that Ishmael might live before You!’ But God said, ‘No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac (יִצְחָק)’”. Maybe there was an interest to portray Sarah as not being serious, she was a woman after all. The Torah on the other hand does not spare the lightheadedness of Abraham and even goes as far as to suggest a degree of lack of faith.
When first reading the Haftarah of “Lech Lecha” it does not seem to have tight ties to what this portion of the Torah tells us. It begins with the words of the prophet Isiah, “Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord,
And the justice due me escapes the notice of my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth Does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable. He gives strength to the weary, And to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, And vigorous young men stumble badly, Yet those who wait for the Lord Will gain new strength They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary.” Isiah admits that faith is understandably a tough business, not only for Sarah and Abraham, it is something that inflicts each and every one of us. Things are way too complex for us in our limited intellectual capacities can readily grasp, regardless of what generation we live in. There is no doubt that we know today more than our parent knew, certainly our grandparents and great-grandparents, let alone those generations of millennia ago.
Despite of that we must also recognize the fact that as humans our knowledge is always limited, and even when it is tough and frustrating we still have to continue and strive to get more knowledge, learn, study, observe and become wiser. The ability to observe (להתבונן) that which is around us makes us wiser (נבונים). It makes sure that we are conscious of the fact that we do not know everything and an endless task is still ahead of us. When the prophet declares, “I will put the cedar in the wilderness, The acacia and the myrtle and the olive tree; I will place the juniper in the desert Together with the box tree and the cypress” he is acutely aware of the fact that this is a new idea as these trees do not grow together and are not adapted for these growing conditions. However, he continues and says, “That they may see and recognize, And consider and gain insight as well,” The ability to connect that which may seem unconnectable creates something new, that which was not there before and after which it is unthinkable to live without.
There are those who consider faith to be a structured method of laws and ordinances that are consistent and it is unthinkable not to literally obey them. It seems that Judaism has a different take on that. Dr. Micah Goodman in a conference I attend last Wednesday that in fact Judaism is a culture of debate, where the Talmud is a reflection of that culture, that developed a debate over the debates and then many moreover, with debates continuing up to now. It is not a codex of law but rather a well-crafted and well-organized structure of debate. It is a structure that allows those which are different, the juniper and the box tree and the cypress to co-exist with the cedar, “the acacia, the myrtle and the olive tree”; where all have an opportunity to extend their knowledge and apply it to the good of all. It is especially essential these days when the culture of debate gave way to a system of controversy which is rude, empty, shallow and full of contempt and ridicule, there is a place of faith for something different. Believing in our ability to handle differences of opinion through a civilized debate that all benefit of even when there are fundamental disagreements.
Reuven Marko, 8 November 2019, 11 MarHeshvan, 5780