And God Took Note?

Joy and laughter, often embodied in children, can help us begin to live again after extreme disappointment and tragedy.

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Provided by the Union of Reform Judaism, the central body of Reform Judaism in North America.

  • Abraham welcomes three visitors, who announce that Sarah will soon have a son. (18:1-15)

  • Abraham argues with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. (18:16-33)

  • Lot's home is attacked by the people of Sodom. Lot and his two daughters escape as the cities are being destroyed. Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt. (19:1-29)

  • Lot impregnates his daughters, and they bear children who become the founders of the nations Moab and Ammon. (19:30-38)

  • Abimelech, king of Gerar, takes Sarah as his wife after Abraham claims that she is his sister. (20:1-18)

  • Isaac is born, circumcised, and weaned. Hagar and her son, Ishmael, are sent away; an angel saves their lives. (21:1-21)

  • God tests Abraham, instructing him to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. (22:1-19)

Focal Point

"Adonai took note of Sarah as promised, and Adonai did for Sarah as spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken. Abraham gave his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him, the name of Isaac. And when his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God had commanded him. Now Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Sarah said, 'God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.' And she added, 'Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children! Yet I have borne a son in his old age.' The child grew up and was weaned, and Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned." (Genesis 21:1-8)

Your Guide

Why were Sarah and Abraham given a baby in their old age?

What were their reactions to this event? How did pregnancy and birth affect their lives? How might a similar experience affect your own life?

The last thing Sarah expected was to experience the joy of motherhood so late in her life. How do you think she felt about her life's goodness and fullness at her age? How would you have expected her to react to the news that she would bear a child?

Can you think of some examples from your own life that have brought a surprising degree of joy following disappointment?

Why did Sarah name the baby Isaac?

By the Way…

"And God took note [pakad] of Sarah." The sense of the verse is that the Eternal remembered Sarah. The Rabbis said (in Tractate Rosh HaShanah 32b), "Biblical verses that mention pakad are equivalent to verses that mention divine remembrances." (Nahmanides on Genesis 21:1)

God said, "Sarah, your wife, shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac." (Genesis 17:19)

"Abraham gave his newborn son…the name of Isaac [Yitzhak]." Isaac's name is derived from the word tzohek ["laughter"] for by all laws of nature the very idea of his birth was laughable. (Samson Raphael Hirsch)

"Abraham gave his newborn son…the name of Isaac [Yitzhak]"--joy at an astonishing event. (Rashbam)

"Who (mi) would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children!" We do not find the word mi used in expressions of distinction and honor. Instead, we find it used only in a derogatory sense. The correct interpretation appears to me to be that Sarah said, "Everyone who hears will laugh at me. There is not a person in the world who would have told us this, even merely to console us, for the possibility would never have occurred to them." (Nahmanides on Genesis 21:7)

"Who [mi] would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children!" An expression of praise and esteem, as in Mi hamohah--"Who is like You, God…." (Rashi on Genesis 21:7)

I once asked a person, "Where do you find the strength to carry on?" And the person responded, "Life is a heavy burden to carry…but I do find strength in the ashes." "In the ashes?" I asked. "Yes," said the person. "You see, each of us is on a journey. A difficult journey. And during this journey, we may feel that we are alone. But in the process of our journey, we must build a fire--a fire for light, for warmth, and for food. When our fingers scrape the ground, hoping to find the coals of another's fire, what we often find are ashes. And in those ashes, which will not give us light or warmth, there may be sadness, but there is also testimony. Because these ashes tell us that somebody else has been in the night. Somebody else has bent to build a fire. And somebody else has carried on. And sometimes that can be enough." (Noah ben Shea)

Your Guide

Nahmanides and Rashi disagree on the importance of the Hebrew word mi. What is the essence of their disagreement?

Both Nahmanides and Rashi imply that a close reading of the Hebrew text proves that God had a role in Isaac's birth. On which Hebrew words do they focus?

Unlike other commentators who speak about the joy of Isaac's birth and the appropriateness of his name, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has a cynical view of Isaac's name. Which opinion is closest to your own?

In your opinion, how is the Noah ben Shea passage relevant to this biblical text?

D'var Torah

The world seems very different since September 11, 2001. For weeks, many of us walked around as if in shock, regardless of how near or how far we were physically from the site of the attacks. For a while, it seemed as if we would never again know joy or lightness--an expected and understandable response, to be sure. And yet, joy and lightness were precisely what was needed in order for us to begin to live again.

Sarah may have carried tremendous grief within herself at not being able to bear a child. Thus when she was finally able to conceive, it is not entirely clear whether she was able to derive joy from that event. On erev (the day before) Rosh Hashanah this year, just six days after the terrorist attacks, our synagogue named a baby before the congregation--an act that demonstrates our determination to seize life's goodness and not succumb to despair. It didn't make the pain and loss disappear, but it did remind us how precious life is. When we are faced with the seemingly senseless trauma of lives cut short, welcoming a new beginning (whether a baby, a friend, or a mission) may be just the right medicine for what ails us.

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Rabbi William Dreskin

Rabbi William Dreskin is the rabbi of Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, NY.