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The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah tells of the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac’s circumcision, and of Hagar’s departure from the house of Abraham at Sarah’s behest and apparently as part of God’s plan. Since I am no authority on circumcision and since the Hagar story could lead us into yet another long discussion of difficulties in the Middle East, about which I remain as unsettled and confused as the area itself, I’d like to concentrate on something more manageable—the passage dealing with Isaac’s birth.
When Isaac is born to Abraham and Sarah it is regarded, of course, as a miracle because Abraham may have been one hundred years old and Sarah ninety! Even if, according to some commentaries, Isaac is really 50 and Sarah is 45, the event is then more likely in terms of ordinary human experience, the birth of a child to Sarah and Abraham in later life and after Sarah’s long barrenness, still emphasizes God’s intervention. The Torah tells us (and this is in keeping with the major themes of Rosh Hashanah) that God remembered Abraham and Sarah and gave them Isaac.
Traditionally, scholars have explained today’s Torah reading as an indication of God’s power and faithfulness—God’s remembering. In examining the tension between human sentiment and divine will, they have also pointed out the close relationship of this story of Isaac’s birth, Abraham’s sympathy for Hagar but his decision to send her away in order to obey God, and the sacrifice that Abraham is later asked to make of Isaac in a supreme test of faith. In most such commentaries, however, Sarah’s role is minimized. She is seen like most women in the Torah, as an “enabler.” Isaac, the male child, is God’s gift to Sarah but more especially to Abraham—Isaac is a real mitzvah at Abraham’s age!
Although Abraham’s mitzvah and God’s miracle receive the emphasis in the story of Isaac’s birth, Sarah has an important line. The Torah, usually singularly solemn in tone, describes her laughter—and Isaac’s name, which means laughter, underlies the importance of her response. In translation the lines read, “Sarah said, God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
I’d like to look more closely at that moment of Sarah’s laughter and ask, “Why does Sarah laugh?” I think there are at least three possible ways to answer that question.
From one perspective, Sarah’s laughter is the everyday, familiar human laughter of joy at an enlarged family, a new child, the excitement of creation and motherhood. This is the laughter we all share as we anticipate or witness or give birth to new life.
Sarah’s laughter, however, is also a more profound laughter for the Jewish people generally and the Torah helps us to understand the complex nature of laughter in that regard. Laughter, some say, is a triumphant, freeing response in the face of a reversal of expectations. It may be the result of a sudden contrast between the conventional and the unconventional in which a confining pattern is upset. Sarah’s laughter in this sense could be a laughter of triumph for against all odds, against all rational human prediction, she has, with God’s remembrance and help, defied conventional time and nature. She was barren and she became fertile; against the odds of bearing children at her age, she gave birth. God’s promise was realized. Her laugh is the archetypal Jewish laughter of triumph that looks ahead to all of Jewish history which tells us that despite incredible odds and consistent adversity, God may remember and an Isaac can be born—that Judaism and the Jewish people will survive. Sarah’s laughter is part of a grand Jewish joke.
Both the concrete and the more universal possibilities I have suggested are important, but there is yet another, at once more contemporary and more personal significance to Sarah’s laugh that we can draw—one that has particular meaning for one who suddenly feels, acutely, her necessity within this miracle between God and the Jewish people. To underline this extended meaning of Sarah’s laughter and to bring it home to us here at Kehillat Israel as we celebrate today, I’d like to share with you a story I read recently in a new book by Suzanne Heschel, Feminism and Jewish Tradition. It is an account by Deborah Lipstadt called “And Deborah Made Ten.”
Every year when the day of my father’s yahrzeit arrives I am faced with the same dilemma. The minyan with whom I daven on Shabbat does not meet during the week. The local Orthodox synagogue, which has numerous daily minyans to accommodate all schedules, makes no provision for women in their chapel. When I do go there the men who occupy the back benches are asked to move up front so that a mehitzah can be st up between the men and women—in this case, me—and I can take my place. The process generally elicits grumbles and glares. Neither I nor they are particularly happy with the arrangement. This year I decided to go to the storefront shul around the corner from my home. It consists of a group of old men who attend in a devoted fashion. It is a nondenominational mutation of Orthodox and Conservative: a traditional service with mixed seating; women are not counted in the minyan or given aliyot. Though the sign in front of the shul proclaims “Bar/Bas Mitzvahs,” once a woman reaches adulthood she does not count.
On the night of the third of Nisan I took my place among the eleven men gathered for Ma’ariv. The rabbi, an elderly retired gentleman with a thick European accent, invited me to sit near him so that he could show me the place. Within a few moments he realized that I was quite familiar with the prayer book and the service. At the conclusion of Ma’ariv I asked when Shacharit, the morning prayers, would be said. One gentleman answered: “At 8:00 am.” Another corrected him: “No, at 7:45.” The first man said: “She can come at 8:00.”
Promptly at 7:45 the next morning I entered the shul, took a prayer book from the shelf and opened it to Birhot HaShahar, the morning blessings. Somewhere in the middle of Pesukei d’Zimra the gentleman who had decided I could come at 8:00 walked over, took the Hebrew/English prayer book I had in my hands and gave me a Tikkun Mayer, a prayer book with neither English translations nor instructions. The assumption is that someone who uses this prayer book needs neither. I smiled at him and knew that with that simple act he had just welcomed me into the club. When services ended he looked at me and simply said, “5:45.”
At 5:45 that evening I arrived for Minhah, the afternoon prayers, feeling good that the day had gone so smoothly. I anticipated being greeted by the strains of Ashrei, the psalm which introduces Minhah, because the sun was already beginning to set. Instead, the room was unnaturally still as the men sat talking quietly. When I walked in they all turned their eyes toward me. The expectant look on their faces and a quick head-count revealed that they were waiting for the ninth and tenth men. I heard the rabbi on the phone trying to find them. “I understand, Mrs. Cohen. No, he shouldn’t come out if the doctor told him to stay home. At our age one must be careful.” After a few more calls the rabbi announced, “Schwartz is coming.” Schwartz would be number nine. We all watched the door, hoping number ten would materialize. I berated myself for not having gone to the Orthodox synagogue where I would have been guaranteed a minyan even if I had to endure some discomfort.
As they waited for Schwartz to arrive the president of the shul announced, to no one in particular, “In some shuls they now count women.” A number of men nodded silently. The sun was disappearing and the time of Minhah rapidly passing. Finally the door opened and in walked Schwartz. The rabbi glanced at the president and said, “Well, if we are going to say Minhah we better start right now.” I counted heads to make sure I was right. There was a minyan: nine men and one woman.
As Minhah ended, I glanced at the clock knowing that a friend was waiting to take me out for dinner to celebrate my birthday. (Even as we remember our losses we go on living and celebrating. And where is it written that you can’t laugh and cry on the same day?) Reservations had been made for 6:30 and I had solemnly promised that this time, unlike previous dinner dates, I would not be late. I knew I could leave right after Minhah, for with that service the yahrzeit ended. As Ma’ariv began I was about to leave when I suddenly realized I had to stay. When I finally arrived at the restaurant I breathlessly explained to my somewhat perturbed friend: “I’m sorry I’m late but I couldn’t leave. I had to stay for Ma’ariv.” Then I felt a wonderful wash of warmth and fulfillment fill my body and (laughed) “You see, they needed me for the minyan.”
Yes, they needed me!
Before continuing, I should add a skeptical footnote. That is, I hope that the old gentlemen in this story were sincere, that they were not playing a mean trick on Deborah, for some shrewd old rabbis have been known to accept a minyan of nine using various connivances, including counting the Sefer Torah as a member of the minyan to make up the required ten. For the sake of a point and because I choose to be hopeful in this case, I’m going to assume that these were sensitive men who did really accept Deborah as part of the minyan and that she and other women are not the victims of a cruel joke.
In addition to Sarah’s laughter of joy at the birth of a new child, her Jewish laughter of triumph in the face of adversity and convention; there is also, then, her laughter as a Jewish woman who suddenly feels her place not only within the Jewish family but within the larger fabric and design that is Jewish history and life. Deborah, as she sees her contemporary significance within the synagogue and Jewish ritual, as she feels necessary for the first time in a minyan, echoes Sarah’s special laugh in a different context. Like Sarah, she laughs with joy and understanding at her necessity.
In this synagogue I feel the reverberations of that laugh of participation in a larger Jewish community and history whenever our members take their roles in a service or outside a service on behalf of the synagogue. I am particularly taken by that feeling, however, on Saturday mornings when KI women are included in the minyan, whenever a woman has an aliyah, whenever bright young KI bat mitzvah women assume their adult roles and we welcome them with as much respect as we do our bright young men. Since I remember only men conducting services when I was a child, I often feel like laughing with pride and a sense of belonging when Annette Weinshank, Shelley Elstein, Ruth Seagull, Sharon Nemser, or so many others lead a section of the service with ease; when Ronnie Nadler creates a rich new craft out of Jewish tradition and when Ellen Potash organizes yet another successful program without funding to do so—when so many of my friends and colleagues, men and women, show me the importance of women to this synagogue.
Sarah’s laughter is a mother’s joyful laugh, a universal laugh of triumph and survival at a Jewish joke on fate and for me it is also a Jewish woman’s laugh, a laugh of unexpected belonging. It says, I too, am part of the larger design. As women, like Sarah, and like Deborah who made ten, it is good to feel needed and although the Jewish community as a whole still has a long way to go in its treatment of women, here at Kehillat Israel we have our own small miracle to be thankful for on this Rosh Hashanah!
September 8, 1983
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