If You See Something • Aviya Kushner
One of my biggest fears is that I will die because I have talked too much. According to Jewish tradition, every human being has a limited number of words, and then that’s it—you’re gone. Every few months I start to worry about my tally, and warn my friends that a quieter life lies ahead.
And then there is my sister. Once, in the middle of dinner, my parents complimented her on her magnificent efficiency (she had, as usual, brought order to a family mess). “Emor me’at ve’aseh harbeh,” she said, crediting Abraham. “Say little and do much.”
I love the way everyone has their own scheme, and their own way of reading and absorbing reality. In the story of Sarah and Abraham, my sister—the future management consultant—noticed how Abraham rushed to get butter and milk, how he rushed to delegate, how he coordinated all of the tasks to welcome the visiting angels. What I’ve always loved about that story is Sarah’s laughter.
When the angels come to talk to Abraham, Sarah listens in the opening of the tent and laughs when she hears the angel say she’ll have a child within a year. In English, the Oxford Annotated Bible primly says, “Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’”
The Talmud is a little blunter. Sarah says something more like, Is there any way this withered old husband of mine will give me a good time in bed? (The word for pleasure here—edna—is from the same root as Eden: Can this man take me back to Eden, can he take me back to pure delight?)
How Sarah laughs is hard to translate. She laughs bekirba. Literally, that means inside her—in her guts, in her intestines. That laughter turns God into an editor, and Sarah into a liar.
In the translation and in the original, God is a benevolent gossip. “Where is your wife Sarah?” God asks Abraham as Sarah listens. It would be nice to have Sarah out there too, with Abraham and with God’s representatives, instead of in the tent, eavesdropping and thinking that her husband isn’t all that talented. “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” God has just edited Sarah. What she actually said about Abraham, how bad a lover she thought he was, is no longer part of the conversation.
The rabbis discuss the matter further, saying God knew Sarah laughed because she found Abraham, well, a little disappointing. The translation can’t convey the fascination of the rabbis at God’s editing. The Talmud suggests that God knew that shalom bayit—peacefulness in the house—was the most important thing. “Great is peace,” a rabbi explains, “and even God will make changes to have it.”
When God asks Sarah why she laughed, she denies it. All the commentators chatter about this too—why did she deny her laughter, why did she try to lie to God? Most of them agree with what the text says: because she was afraid. I’m not crazy about that part. The only person with the guts to laugh in all these chapters is a very old woman who is barren and stuck making conversation with a concubine she doesn’t like much anyway. She’s out there in the desert with a ninety-nine-year old husband who runs around to fetch butter as soon as he sees a guest. All Sarah did was what God did: edit the truth, say as little as possible and try to keep the peace.
Aviya Kushner is at work on a book about how the Bible has been changed through translation. She lives in Chicago.
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