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Vayeira

What Are The Odds?

Kings, prophets, swords, and Sarah's laughter at the tiding of the angels.

What Are The Odds?
Who is like the Holy One, blessed is He, Who knows [how] to make a compromise between two righteous people, [i.e.] between [King] Chizkiyahu and [the prophet] Yeshayahu, [who couldn’t agree on the question of whose honor was greater.

Chizkiyahu said, “Let Yeshayahu come to me! For thus we find in [the case of the prophet] Eliyahu – that he went to [see] Achav, [king of Israel, and didn’t summon Achav to appear before him. Evidently, the honor due a king is greater than that due a prophet. Yeshayahu should accordingly come to me!”

Yeshayahu said, “Let Chizkiyahu come to me! For thus do we find in [the case of] Yehoram son of Achav, [king of Israel] – that he went to [see the prophet] Elisha, [and didn’t summon Elisha to appear before him. Evidently, the honor due a prophet is greater than that due a king. Chizkiyahu should therefore come to me!]”

What did the Holy One, blessed is He, do? He brought afflictions upon Chizkiyahu, and He [then] said to Yeshayahu, “Go and visit the sick one.” [Thus did God bring these two together.] For it is stated, “In those days, Chizkiyahu took sick unto death, and Yeshayahu son of Amotz the prophet came to him and said to him, ‘So spoke God! Instruct your household for you are dying, and you will not live.’”[1] [We see that Yeshayahu came before Chizkiyahu as a result of the afflictions that were brought upon Chizkiyahu.]

The Gemara pauses to analyze this prophecy:

What is [the reason the verse first states:] “for you are dying,” [and then continues with the words:] “and you will not live”? [If one is dying, it is obvious that he will not live! The Gemara explains:] “You are dying” [refers to death] in this world; “and you will not live” [refers] to [death in] the World to Come. [Upon hearing this prophecy, Chizkiyahu inquired about the reason for this punishment:]

[Chizkiyahu] said to [Yeshayahu], “What is [the reason for] all this [i.e. why am I deserving of such a severe penalty]”? [Yeshayahu] said to him, “[It is] because you didn’t engage in procreation.” [Chizkiyahu] said to him, “[But this was] because I saw with Divine inspiration that unvirtuous children will issue forth from me! [It is better to refrain from the mitzvah of procreation than to beget such offspring.]” [Yeshayahu] said to him, “Why [do] you [concern yourself] with these hidden things of the Merciful One? What you are commanded [to do], you must do, and what is [found to be] good before the Holy One, blessed is He, He will do. [This is not your choice to make!]”

[Chizkiyahu] said to him, “Now [that I am apprised of my wrong], give me your daughter [as a wife, and I will beget children by her]. Perhaps
my merits and your [merits] will [together suffice to] cause virtuous children to issue forth from me!”

[Yeshayahu] said to him, “[But] a decree [of death] has already been passed upon you. [At this point, marrying my daughter will accomplish nothing.”

[Chizkiyahu] said to him, “Son of Amotz, end your prophecy and go! [For] I have received this [following teaching] from the house of my father’s father [i.e. from the house of my ancestor, King David]: Even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he shouldn’t refrain from [praying for] mercy. [All hope is therefore not lost.]”[2]

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As Avraham recuperated from his circumcision, he found himself suffering not as much from the physical pain of his wound but from the emotional distress of not being able to perform acts of lovingkindness with passersby; it was so blazingly hot outside, even the wanderers stayed at home. The Almighty, in His mercy, brought him three angels, in the guise of men, to visit him.[3]

And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have withered, shall I again have delicate skin? And my husband is old!” Then Hashem said to Avraham, “Why is it that Sarah laughed, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, though I have become old?’ Is anything beyond Hashem? At the appointed time I will return to you at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” Sarah denied it saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was frightened. But he said, “No, you laughed indeed.”[4]

The Ramban poses a basic question: “I am perplexed about the righteous prophetess [Sarah]… why did she not believe the words of the angels of God, [when they told Avraham that she would bear him a son]?” The Ramban answers that Avraham, “in his wisdom,” recognized these ordinary-looking men for what they truly were: angels; however, Sarah didn’t know that these “men” were angels sent by the Almighty. Alternatively, the Ramban suggests, as Sarah was a prophetess (with an even greater level of prophecy than her husband[5]), that had Sarah seen them, she would’ve also recognized them as angels; however, the Ramban writes, “perhaps she did not see them at all,” but, instead, only heard their voices.

Why, then, was the Almighty displeased with Sarah’s reaction? If she didn’t know they were angels, how else should she have responded? The Ramban offers an incredible explanation: “The Holy One, blessed is He, complained about her to Avraham, [asking] why the matter seemed [so] impossible to her; for it would have been fitting for her to believe the [prediction], or to say, ‘Amen, may God do so!’” Despite Sarah’s advanced age, a proffered tiding of a child should’ve warranted a reaction other than laughter, for there is nothing that is beyond the Almighty’s ability.
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After the sword’s gone through the neck, give up hope. There are definitely occasions in life in which hope is inappropriate; however, until that door has been loudly closed, keep hoping. You might’ve thought to yourself that if the judge and jury have sentenced you to death, and if all your appeals with the higher courts have failed, and if the king hasn’t pardoned you, and now the executioner is momentarily resting his blade on your neck before he takes the big swing, that all hope is lost and, indeed, the Brisker Rav says, everything is lost… when you live without emunah. For a Jew, though, “Even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he shouldn’t refrain from [praying for] mercy.”

With the Almighty’s help, anything is possible. Likeliness, odds, plausibility, probability, prospect, reasonableness, statistics, and tendency: all of them are meaningless to Him. Turn to Him with that recognition and you won’t need to give up hope.
 
[1] Melachim II 20:1.
[2] Berachos 10a-b.
[3] See Rashi to Bereishis 18:1.
[4] Bereishis 18:12-14.
[5] Rashi to Bereishis 21:12.