Our Torah portion this week, Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1–25:18, brings to conclusion the first generation of our earliest ancestors with the death of Sarah, Abraham and Ishmael. The parsha begins with the words: Sarah’s lifetime – the span of Sarah’s life – came to 127 years.
These words, our sages teach, are instructive for so many reasons. This text, in talking of her death, first highlights her life. This is repeated later in our parsha when Abraham and Ishmael’s deaths are recorded. By using the word “chayei” twice in one sentence, it reminds us to always look at the depth of how someone lived, rather than focusing on the manner and fact of their death. This is one way our tradition reminds us that how we live our life is more important than how many years we live.
In the portrait drawn in our text, we learn Sarah was beautiful and did what she was asked to do to protect her husband. We know she worked with Abraham to help people accept the Hebrew God as theirs. We also know that she was jealous for and protective of her son Isaac and was willing to do whatever It took to protect him. This is one of the reasons that some commentators focus on the fact that Sarah died from the shock of learning about her beloved son’s near sacrifice. But my favorite part of Sarah’s legacy to us is that she is recorded as laughing when she learns that she will bear a child in her old age.
Many commentators are not as enamored of Sarah’s laughter as I am for, they think is showed dis-respect to God by showing disbelief that God could fulfill this promise after years of barrenness. They contrast this with Abraham’s laughter when he received that same news. They say that Abraham laughed out of delight, while Sarah laughed because she did not believe that God perform this miracle. Her life was complex, and her portrait is reflective of so many women navigating a complex world.
Researchers into the mechanics of human laughter say that the primary purpose of laughter is to trigger positive feelings in other people and unite groups of people. So perhaps rather than seeing Sarah’s laughter as skeptically as did our commentators, we see that Sarah laughed in relief, in delight, and in joy.. She knew that Isaac’s subsequent birth would continue their lineage and fulfill God’s promises for them and the world to come. In this way Sarah’s laughter, like her life, inspires us to find joy and light in our lives and through our laughter, our delight and our joy, we will work to create a world unified and worthy of God’s blessing for ourselves and for generations to come.
Rabbi Paula Jayne Winnig serves as interim rabbi at Congregation Rodef Sholom in Youngstown.