Parshat VaYera, 5778

by Rabbi Isaac Mann
I would like to share with you a very insightful ethical interpretation of a midrashic comment that I heard in the name of Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Pam, who was the Rosh ha-Yeshiva of Mesivta Torah Vodaath in the latter part of the 20th century.

Commenting on the verse in Genesis 21:6, which describes Sarah’s reaction to her giving birth to Isaac at the age of 90 (“G-d has brought me laughter; whoever hears about this will laugh with me”), the Midrash adds that many barren women became pregnant (literally “were remembered by G-d”) along with her, many sick were healed along with her, many prayers were answered along with her, for there was much laughter (i.e. joy) in the world (quoted by Rashi ad loc.).

The Midrash is apparently responding to the question of why would everyone who heard about Sarah’s birth erupt into joyful laughter. Surely there must be some personal connection to this matriarch to have strangers share in her glee. Thus, the answer supplied by the rabbis is that many other women as well experienced pregnancy, healing, and other happy experiences at the same time that Sarah gave birth – and that was attributed to her. Why to Sarah?

The plain or simple explanation is that Sarah was of course a tzaddeket – a very pious and righteous woman, and in her merit not only was she blessed with a child at an advanced age, but so too were many other women who had difficulty conceiving. And to widen the net, the Midrash includes the sick and needy whose prayers were answered because of Sarah’s great virtue. This notion is in line with the well accepted principle that a righteous person’s merit helps not only himself but others as well. Indeed, this is the very basis for Abraham’s plea to G-d to save Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of the righteous that might live in those cities, as we read earlier in the parashah (18:23-33).

However, there is another way of understanding the Midrash’s connection between Sarah’s conceiving a child, and the abundance of births that took place at the same time. Rav Pam, of blessed memory, suggested that the phrase tzhok asah li Elokim (“G-d brought me laughter”) implies that our matriarch was overjoyed at the birth of her son, and it was a kind of joy that could only come because of having others share in that joy with her. As long as there were other women who could not conceive and other women who needed to have their prayers answered, Sarah’s joy could not be complete. A truly virtuous and caring individual cannot experience a simhah shlemah (“complete happiness”) when others around him or her are not similarly blessed. Thus, the Midrash assumes that many others must have also had offspring and healing at the same time that Sarah gave birth in order for this righteous woman to experience true happiness.

At a time when there is much suffering in the world around us – whether man-made or of natural origins – we should reflect upon that when we are blessed with personal events or occasions that bring us much joy. Whether through giving tzedakah, or reaching out to help others, or through prayer, we should remember, as with our great matriarch, our joy cannot be complete if others do not share in it. While we may not be able to accomplish what Sarah did, we can, in our own limited ways, help alleviate some of the suffering and bring some joy or relief to others. In that way our own joy will be enhanced.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Isaac Mann is a former member of AJR’s Rabbinic faculty and is currently the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.