Community Torah Corner, November 11, 2022

Rabbi Danny Nevins
Head of School
Golda Och Academy
Parshat Vayera

I love to laugh. Who doesn’t? A giggle, a chuckle, a full-on belly laugh—these moments lift the weight of the world off our shoulders. Even better is to see someone else laugh, especially someone who is having a tough time. Bringing laughter to another person can be an enormous gift, an expression of friendship and love.
In this section of the Torah we read about the laughter respectively of Abraham and Sarah upon hearing that they would become parents in their old age. But what kind of laughter is each of theirs? Is it a happy laugh, or perhaps one of surprise or even disbelief? Laughter can signal all of these emotions, and it isn’t always clear why another person is laughing. God questions Sarah’s laughter (18:13-14), “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?” Hard as it seems, God appears insecure when Sarah laughs, taking her giggle as a sign of disbelief. But maybe she really was plain happy, as she seems later in the portion.
The Torah plays on the ambiguity of laughter, which in Hebrew comes from the root tzadee, chet, kuf and is the basis of Isaac’s name, Yitzhak (“he will laugh”). Sarah says (21:6), “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” This sounds good, but sages such as Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin understand Sarah as defensive—she’ll have the “last laugh” at those who doubted her ability to give birth.
A few verses later, Sarah notices Hagar’s son playing (mitzaheik, from the same root) and Sarah suddenly turns jealous, demanding that Abraham drive out the boy and his mother, so that only Isaac will inherit his father. The laughter of a rival makes Sarah worry about her own status. 
Sometimes when we see someone laughing we feel included. Sometimes we feel threatened. Sometimes we misunderstand their intention. Emotions are complicated! This is why at Golda Och Academy we spend time in class working on social and emotional learning. It is easy to misunderstand each other, and as a consequence, to miss opportunities to help our friends and family when they are struggling. Our younger learners often identify their emotion on a mood-meter, and explain a bit about how they are feeling. This allows the teacher to address those feelings and help the students turn to their learning tasks for the day.
Parshat Vayera has light and joyous moments, together with ones that are heavy and even frightening. Such is life. The Torah is teaching us to take emotions seriously, and to use the lighter moments as opportunities to regroup and gather the strength we need to accomplish our important work. I wish you a Shabbat shalom, a day full of friendship and laughter.