“No, I didn’t.”
It’s so easy to say, and it’s almost instinctual. When caught in the act, when caught in a lie, when we’re scared to admit the truth, it’s an automatic response.
Big deal. So, faced with an awkward moment, our tendency is to dissemble. It’s an ancient and honored tradition that started with Chava and continued with Cain and on down the line…to Abraham…to Sarah.
Abraham lied and got caught at it, and yet, in this parasha, he repeats the lie and gets caught at it again. Boy are we a stubborn creation.
It’s often said that nothing is in the Torah by accident. So what are we to make of the brief incident of Sarah lying that she did not laugh, and the brief and to the point rebuke she received (either from Abraham, or from G”d, the text isn’t really clear on that point, is it?)
Let’s review. Abraham, good soul that he is, welcomes G”d’s messengers into his tent, and is told that Sarah is to have a baby. Sarah overhears and laughs, incredulous, as she says, as I am old and withered, am I to have such delight with my husband, also so old? (One has to wonder if the plain meaning of delight here is sexual, or if it is really referring to the delight of having a child. But then, childbirth is painful, a punishment inflicted upon all women for Chava’s error of judgment in gan eden.) Then G”d asks Abraham “why did Sarah laugh?” Then Sarah lied and said I did not laugh. The response, said either by Gd or by Abraham is simply “lo, ki tzakhak’t” (no, you did laugh.) All of which raises the question, why did G”d ask Abraham the question, and not Sarah directly? Why, then, did Sarah, and not Abraham, answer G”d? Holy enigmas, Batman!
“No, I didn’t.”
”Yes, you did.”
And that’s it. End of story. No further rebuke from G”d, no comment, no anything. The story just moves on.
What are we to make of that? Is this telling us that the incident was insignificant? That Sarah’s brief bit of dissembling was inconsequential? Then why is it even there in the text?
Might it be a subtle reminder to all us humans, prone as we are to dissemble in times of fear, stress, discomfort or embarrassment, that there is never any excuse for lying? Might it be the opposite-a reminder that we are imperfect, and that sometimes we have to just forgive ourselves for that?
Or, maybe this little irony. In this parasha and a previous one, we see Abraham lie. Both times, while he’s caught at it, and chastised for it, it’s not Abraham that is punished for it, and it’s G”d that puts things to right preventing the lie from causing greater harm than Abraham realized it might. And now we have Sarah, too, lying in front of Gd. If we read it as Abraham rebuking her with “no, you did lie” then there is great irony, or similarity of character flaws (both lied out of fear.) If we read it as G”d rebuking her with “you did lie” but taking no further action, and still giving Sarah a son, might it be that G”d was treating Sarah as G”d treated Abraham, annoyed with the lie, but forgiving it and still setting things right?
But whoa, you say. Sarah lied in front of G”d! That’s a big deal, isn’t it!
I wonder. Might this be the real lesson of the text-that it doesn’t matter whether you lie to G”d or to a fellow human being, it’s still a lie? Is this the essence of this simple piece of text?
Might the abrupt end of this exchange be G”d’s double-take? After all, G”d, and G”d’s messengers, are about to head out to Sodom and Gomorrah and make and end of them because of their wickedness, which surely includes lying. Might this unwritten, awkward moment of silence that probably came after “lo, ki tzakhak’t” be an internal shudder by G”d? Here’s G”d, bestowing great honors and favors upon Abraham and Sarah and about to bestow even more in 9 months. G”d has stopped on the way to offer a fiery and total rebuke to the liars and scoundrels of Sodom and Gomorrah. Stopped to chat with the two people G”d knows and loves and is trying to inculcate a sense of rightful behavior in, and has seen glimmers of success (as in Abraham, hospitality). And then Sarah lies. Could G”d then have had this brief internal flash of regret, of frustration, before the hurriedly moving on to deal with Sodom and Gomorrah before getting angry with Sarah?
If you’ll forgive me for saying this, if I were in G”d’s shoes, I’d be a bit frustrated by that too. Could it even be that Sarah’s lie is what sealed the deal for Sodom and Gomorrah? Did she add to G”d’s frustration and perhaps prevent G”d from reconsidering? We’ll never know, so is there any point to such speculation?
This is all mere conjecture. Reading meaning out of the text, exegesis. and reading meaning into the text, eisegesis.
“No, I didn’t laugh.” “Yes, you did laugh.” Or more directly, “Yes, you lied.” A simple enough exchange, with nothing more added. Yet layered with levels upon levels of possible meaning and interpretation.
The author of Torah must be pleased, that so simple a thing can so tie us up in knots, and give us countless ways to interpret and derive meaning. How clever. And how grateful we should be to that author for it all.
©2013, portions ©2001 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayera 5773 – Do Your Own Unpacking
Vayera 5772 – Well?
Vayera 5771 – Density
Vayera 5770 – Not Even Ten?
Vayeira 5769 – He’s a Family Guy (?)
Vayera 5767-Revised 5759-Whoops! (or Non-Linear Thinking)
Vayera 5766-The Price of Giving
Vayera 5765-From the Journal of Lot Pt. II
Vayera 5762-Plainly Spoken
Vayera 5760/5761-More From the “Journal of Lot”
Vayera 5759-Whoops! (or “Non-Linear Thinking?”)
Vayera 5757-Technical Difficulties