VayeiraWomen’s Torah Portion

Vayeira – Holy Laughter

Avraham Avinu is told by the angels regarding the impending miracle of Yitzchak’s birth, “Ka’eit chayah,” now you will merit life. When Yishmael is stricken, Hagar abandons him because she doesn’t want to watch him die. Hashem opens her eyes and she sees a well of water, and Yishmael is miraculously saved.

In another instance, Yitzchak is lying on the altar, ready to be sacrificed. At the last second a malach calls out to Avraham, “Do not place your hand upon the child,” and Yitzchak is spared. As the Zohar points out, Yitzchak’s name is composed of two words, “keitz chayah.” He was on the threshold of death but returned. And in the haftarah, Elisha blesses the barren Shunamite woman. The miracle happens and she bears a child, but years later he falls dead. Elisha brings the child back to life.

Our Sage tell us that “ein mazel b’Yisrael.” The Jewish people transcend the limitations of mazel. In Hebrew, the word for nature is teva, the root of the word for coin, matbeia. When a coin is tossed it can fall on either side. The Midrash tells us that three very special coins were used to illustrate this concept throughout history. In the times of Avraham and Sarah, one side of the coin depicted an elderly couple. On the other side there was a young couple with a baby in the woman’s arms. The second coin, during the times of David Hamelech, showed a poor shepherd with a sack on his back and the Beit Hamikdash on the other.

The third coin, in the days of Mordechai and Esther, also depicted a miraculous change in nature. One side showed Mordechai’s “sackcloth and ashes” after learning of Haman’s vicious plans, while the other featured the golden crown that adorned his head after the miracle of Purim. All three were meant to deliver the message that a Jew’s mazel can change in the blink of an eye.

How can we Jewish women facilitate such change? We find many secrets in the parshah such as tefillah, tears, and chesed, but the real game changer is tzechok, laughter. We find a lot of laughter in Parshat Vayeira, of all varieties. Sarah’s reaction to the news brought to her by the malachim is, “Whoever hears it will laugh at me.” The very name Yitzchok is associated with tzechok. And when Lot tells his children to hurry out of S’dom “he was a laughingstock in the eyes of his sons-in-law.”

What does the word tzechok mean? Is it a good thing or not? The word tzechok can be split into two, “tzei chok,” meaning that one must transcend the laws of nature.

For Jews, there is no such thing as being bound by the laws of nature; there is no defined mazel. Thus a Jewish home cannot be properly established without the capacity for real laughter, thanks to the knowledge that any situation can always improve. When a couple is blessed at their wedding, two sets of brachot are heaped upon them: gilah, rinah, ditzah and chedvah, and ahavah, achvah, shalom and rei’ut. The first are actions a person does as an individual; the second group refers to various levels necessitating the input of both spouses. This teaches that if you experience happiness as an individual, you will undoubtedly be able to establish a home of genuine shalom.

Once a woman stops expecting joy to be handed to her on a silver platter, she will be able to experience real tzechok. In fact, our lives depend completely on the acknowledgment that yes, the laws of nature can change on our behalf, which in simple terms is emunah. Now we can understand why the malach broke the joyous news to Avraham under the stars, as if to say, “You and all of your descendants have the ability to transcend these things.” In the wicked city of S’dom, people were mocked freely. But what is the fundamental difference between the tzechok of emunah and the tzechok of S’dom and Yishmael?

Holy laughter is meant to make Hashem greater, indicating that we believe in His power to change our lives, whereas the cynical laughter of S’dom makes Hashem less significant. Laughter is a serious matter and we have to know how to use it correctly. My students often ask me, “Can you laugh and still be frum?” They have yet to learn that it is a basic yesod. When Hashem asked Sarah why she laughed she denied it. Aside from the fact that her laughter wasn’t pure like Avraham’s, she didn’t understand that it is our duty to laugh and acknowledge that yes, we can transcend nature, no matter how helpless our situation looks. Although it might seem like kalut rosh, it is actually the epitome of yirat shamayim. Accepting Hashem’s yoke doesn’t mean not trying to change whatever has been meted out. It means something much deeper: realizing that we do possess the power, as Hashem’s children, to influence events.

Of course, this is easier said than done, but Rav Wolbe makes a wonderful suggestion. When women use their potential to be productive, it makes them happy. Because Avraham Avinu understood this he tried to counter Sarah’s feelings of sadness by asking her to bake bread, something that would increase her positive energy.

Two weeks ago I attended the massive challah bake in London as part of the Shabbos Project initiative. It was the movement of those 8,000 hands kneading the dough that gave those women power. It filled them with a sense of mission and brought back their lost laughter. Nothing is beyond Hashem’s reach.

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