Question: Why did Sarah – one of our four righteous matriarchs – laugh when she heard the angel prophesy that she would give birth to a son? How could she have doubted God?
Answer: The pasuk says, “And he said, ‘I will certainly return to thee at this time of the year, and behold, Sarah thy wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent-door, v’hu acharav” (Bereishit 18:10). The standard translation of “v’hu acharav” is “and the tent was behind him.” Targum Yonatan, however, contends that “v’hu acharav” means that Yishmael was standing behind Sarah listening to what the angels were telling Avraham.
Based upon this, Rav Yehuda Leib Sorotzkin (Magid Yosef, Chayyei Sarah) suggested the following: Sarah never doubted the prophesy (or the ability of Hashem). Her concern was its impact on Yishmael. Sarah knew that Yishmael was wild, and she feared that he would hate her new child since it would mean he was no longer Avraham’s sole heir. She feared that he even may attempt to harm her and forcibly cause her to miscarry.
Therefore, she sought to present the allusion that she herself did not believe in the validity of the prophesy. Her laughter was a means of manifesting to Yishmael that there was no reason to assume that the prophesy would come to pass. It was a matter to scoff at and belittle. This approach, she assumed, would eliminate any serious action by Yishmael either against her or the new child.
If this was her thinking, why did Hashem rebuke her? Wasn’t her intention proper?
The answer is that her intention was proper, but since Hashem was promising her a child, she should have believed and had faith that He would also protect both her and the child.
Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, is the author of seven books on Jewish law. His latest, “Shabbat The Right Way: Resolving Halachic Dilemmas,” is available at Judaica stores and at Amazon.com.