At the end of last week’s Parsha G-d: changed Avram’s name to Avraham; reiterated His promise to give the land of Canaan to Avraham’s descendents; commanded him the Mitzvah of Milah (circumcision); and told him that Sarai would now be named Sarah and bear him a son.
Avraham laughed from the overwhelming joy of G-d’s promise (Rashi 17:17) and immediately prayed to G-d that his first son should also have a relationship with G-d. “O that Yishmael might live before You!”
In this week’s Parsha the Three Angels appeared to Avraham on the 15th of Nissan – the 1st day of Pesach, and promised him that in one year Sarah would give birth to Yitzchak. Sarah was not part of the conversation but she overheard the Angel speaking to Avraham and laughed. The Torah seems to criticize Sarah’s laughter (Ibid.).
What was the difference between Avraham’s laughter and Sarah’s? Why is Sarah’s laughter criticized and not Avraham’s?
Eliyahu Ki Tov explained in Sefer Haparshios that Sarah already knew that she would have a child. The end of last week’s Parsha took place three days before the beginning of this week’s Parsha. That means that Avraham was told that Sarah would have a son three days before the 3 Angels appeared. (See Rashi 18:1) We have every reason to assume that Avraham told Sarah the prophecy as soon as he heard it; therefore, Sarah knew the news three days before she overheard the Angel speaking to Avraham.
Why is it that Avraham laughed when he heard the prophecy but Sarah first laughed three days later? More so, why did the Angels come at all if Avraham and Sarah already knew that Sarah would have a son?
Human psychology and physiology were designed to work in concert with Torah and Mitzvos. If we find it difficult to adjust our thinking, feelings, and behaviors to G-d’s expectations it is because G-d created free will and the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination). The Yetzer Hara awakens our false sense of independence and we mistakenly think that we can do as we think and feel rather than change to think, feel, and do as G-d wishes. G-d expected that we would struggle with this issue. Except for the first moments in Gan Eden, the adage, “No righteous person exists who does only good and never sins,” sums up the human condition in relation to G-d’s expectations. We are all conflicted by the I vs. G-d challenge and we will all have moments of mistakes from which we will hopefully learn, grow, and change.
The fundamental principal of doing as G-d wishes rather than what we want can be summed up with the words, “Naaseh V’Nishmaah – We will first do as G-d commands and then we will attempt to understand the reasons for His commandments.” This principal had already been presented to Adam and Chava in Gan Eden. G-d told them that they should eat from all the trees of the garden except for the two trees in the middle of the garden. G-d did not explain to them why they could not eat from the trees in the middle of the garden. Only later did the Nachash reveal to Chava and Adam that one of the two was the Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil. That means that G-d expected them to listen to His commandment without knowing why. Simply put that was Naaseh V’Nishmah.
The Naaseh V’Nishmah modality of teaching has been the only time tested method for transmitting G-d’s law. Adam taught Shais, who taught Enosh, who taught Chanoch, who taught, Misushelach who taught Lemech who taught Noach who taught Shem, who taught Ever, who taught Avraham. The process continued through the period of the Avos (forefathers), Shevatim (tribes) and Egypt, until the nation stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Since that time, it has remained a process of teaching our children and students to believe, accept and behave before we entertain their inevitable question, “Why?”
If we further analyze the Naaseh V’Nishmah method it becomes clear that action is a far richer and impacting teaching tool than intellect. Every parent recognizes that children are first taught to do the right thing and not do the wrong thing before they are able to understand why the right thing is right and the wrong thing wrong. In fact, it is the very same model that society must engage in if they hope to survive. Society establishes rules and regulations that they believe to be good and just and do not open their judiciousness or goodness to general discussion. Instead, society acknowledges that mistakes happen and perfection is the stuff of fantasy and they create a process for legal review that accommodates the need for change. However, until the change is ratified by the Powers-That-Be, society demands that everyone adhere to the law as it is, whether agreed-to or understood-by the general public.
The Talmud supports the Naaseh V’Nishmah model in its discussion of whether action is a greater priority than study or is study a greater priority than action. The Talmud concludes that study is a greater priority because through study a person knows how to act. Without sufficient study a person might think that his actions are good when in reality they are not. However, the Talmud’s conclusive logic is inescapable. Clearly, action is more important than study because the importance of study is that it brings a person to the level of action. In fact, someone whose actions are already proper and set need not learn, except for the qualitative value of the performance. We do not study to know the reason and justify the commandment. We study to understand the reason and intensify and elevate the performance of the commandment.
At the end of last week’s Parsha Avraham and Sarah attained the level where they merited giving birth to Yitzchak. As explained in last week’s issue, the Avos and Imahos were not simple people or simple parents. They were the progenitors of a nation that would be spiritually apart from the rest of humanity. As such, their preparation for parenting was far more demanding and rigorous because it had to impact the souls of their children. Therefore, the preparation for becoming parents took much more time.
Avraham had been promised at the age of seventy, at the Covenant Between The Halves, that he would have children. At the age of 86, Yishmael was born. However, it became clear that Yishmael was not to be “Your son, your only son, the son you love, Yitzchak.” However, the intellectual knowledge that he would have another son was insufficient to bring about joy, elation, and laughter. It was only after G-d changed Avraham’s name, gave him the special Mitzvah of Milah (circumcision), and was told that his son would be Sarah’s son that Avraham was able to laugh out-loud. Avraham did not doubt G-d’s ability to do so before that point. Just the opposite! Avraham believed with all his heart that G-d’s promises would be realized even if he had no idea how or when that would be. Nevertheless, the laughter that transcended the intellectual and came from his human heart demanded the prior action of physical change before it burst forth.
When Avraham shared the prophecy with Sarah, Sarah believed as fervently as Avraham that G-d’s promises would be realized. However, the promise to Sarah was not accompanied with a physical change like Milah. True, her name was changed, but the changed names of Avraham and Sarah reflected the intellectual changes that Avraham and Sarah had undergone more so than the gut emotional acceptance of G-d’s prophesy. Names do not carry the psychological impact of action. Remember, it is the Naaseh (action) component of Naaseh V’Nishmah that has the greatest affect on the psyche of a person. Therefore, although she believed and accepted Avraham’s prophecy (another example of Naaseh V’Nishmah) she did not laugh out-loud.
When the Angels appeared to Avraham three days after undergoing the physical change of Milah, they did so or Sarah’s sake. Avraham invited them into his and Sarah’s home and the first thing he did was instruct Sarah to prepare the bread. The first thing he did was to engage the newly named Sarah in the active commandment of Hachnosas Orchim (welcoming guests, hospitality; he then arranged for the rest of the meal. After the Angels “ate” they turned to Avraham and repeated G-d’s promise of three days earlier with the added information of the date, “one year from today.” (Nissan 15, 2048)
Maintaining the mode of Naaseh V’Nishmah for the transmission of information, the Angels did not address Sarah directly. Instead they spoke to Avraham who repeated it to Sarah; however, as intended, Sarah overheard the conversation. Sarah realized that what had just transpired with the three Angels was far more than “another opportunity for doing Chesed (kindness).” Sarah understood that the changes reflected in her new name were far more impacting than she first realized. She realized that the second prophecy of the birth of Yitzchak necessitated her and Avraham engaging in what had been until that point “another act of Chesed.” In fact it was not the same act of Hachnosas Orchim that they had done countless times before.. It was a shared act of Chesed that engaged the entire household in its performance on a level that was unique and different for the first time in the history of the world. It was the first act of Chesed performed by the first Jewish household ever. The newly established Bris (covenant) with G-d meant that every action was profoundly more important than ever before.
For Sarah it was the action of Naaseh (doing) that preceded the Nishmah (understanding). The welcoming of the Angels for Sarah was what the Bris Milah (circumcision) had been to Avraham. Just as Avraham laughed when he heard the prophecy because it followed the commandment to do an action, so too Sarah laughed when she overheard the prophecy because if followed the new act of Chesed that she had performed. The laughter transcended the intellectual and burst forth from her human heart.
Regarding the seeming criticism of Sarah’s laughter, Sarah’s denial of her laughter, and Rashi’s critical presentation of Sarah’s laughter.
(Listening to Sarah; Pre-Sodom; the Akeida)
They trusted G-d to provide as He saw fit, without any strings attached.
The following note was subsequently added by Rabbi Aron Tendler:
A number of readers have asked me to better explain the relationship between Rabbi Akiva being a descendent of converts and his not assuming the leading position on the Supreme Court.
The essence of our relationship with G-d is willful dependency founded upon humility. It, more so than any other characteristic, is the prerequisite for the study of Torah. Every student must know that the Torah he studies and the lifestyle he lives was taught by G-d on Mt. Sinai. More so, it is not the right of the individual to study G-d’s Torah; rather, it is G-d’s gift to His Chosen People to be able to study it.
More so is the realization that the opportunity of being a “Jew” reflects on the “inheritance” factor of being the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov. It is reflected in our daily prayer when we introduce ourselves to G-d as the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov. Its intention is to humble us by emphasizing the uniqueness of our Yichus – ancestry. If not for that “genetic” reality we would not be who we are; we would not do what we do; and we would not have the responsibilities that we are obligated to perform.
Most Jews do not choose that designation. Most Jews are born into it and are hopefully raised to willingly and pridefully accept their heritage and lifestyle of Torah and Mitzvos.
The relationship of the nation, its leadership, and G-d is both complex and simple. Leadership has no special dispensations. Whatever the masses are obligated to accomplish the leadership is equally obligated to do. In fact, leadership has the added obligation of a fishbowl existence. What they do and what they do not do is the stuff of teaching or scandal.
Additionally, leadership must view their poison as a gift. The honor is in serving not being chosen to serve. Just as we should serve G-d for the sake of service and not reward, just as we should serve G-d for the sake of service and not out of fear of punishment, so too leadership serves because that is what they are supposed to do.
Underlying the concept of service is the recognition that no service can be successful without Divine intervention – help from heaven. Divine intervention is the result of personal dedication, devotion, commitment, and effort, coupled with a lineage of the same. The greater the position the greater the need for Divine intervention. The greater the need for Divine intervention the greater the need for Yichus – laudable ancestry.
Kingship is the inheritance of the descendants of King David. Priesthood is the inheritance of the descendants of Aharon. Torah is the inheritance of every Jew. However, leadership in Torah must transcend the individual and stand upon the shoulders of the giants who came before. Without it no one person can claim the necessary dependency and humility required to lead.
Rabbi Akiva was the greatest of all the Talmudic scholars. No one surpassed him. No one equaled him. Yet, that was not enough to assume the supreme position as Head of the Sanhedrin. Without the humbling weight of historic ancestry Divine intervention is not assured.
Can the children of converts attain greatness that transcends the limits of time and genetics? Of course! Speak to King David, visit with Shmaya and Avtalion, and be humbled at the feet of Rabbi Akiva. However, always remember that the gift of being is just that, a gift. All we can do is desire the gift. We can never demand it.
To those who have chosen and those who choose to join Jewish destiny, know that I am in awe of you. I am in awe of your strength, and I am in awe of your willfulness. I can guess at the self-sacrifice and I am humbled at your devotion to truth. You teach me to appreciate what I have been gifted and strengthen my resolve to grant the same to my children. You are my brother and you are my sister. Be proud of your decision, embrace the humility, accept the dependency, you have chosen to be Chosen.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.