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Fulfillment of God’s Promise is Accompanied by… Laughter

Thoughts on Parashat Lech Lecha

Menachem Mirski

There are days when we completely lose our energy to live, when we feel unhappy and a voice inside us tells us that nothing can be done about it so do nothing. Some people simply accept this voice and for others this can be a harbinger of impending depression. There are also those among us who hear a second inner voice, the voice of rebellion: Now is the time for an important change, don’t hesitate, take this jump. Make a breakthrough!

In this week’s parasha Abram, who was childless and believed that he was approaching the end of his life heard this second type of voice. He receives a promise from God that he will not only have a son, but he will become the father of nations and his offspring will be as many as the stars in the sky (Gen 15:5). The constitutive feature of the divine promise is, of course, that the probability of its fulfillment is 100%. On the same day, God makes a covenant with Abram and foretells him in a dream a fragment of the history of his descendants, the Israelites – their bondage in Egypt and their liberation (Gen 15:12-17).

Soon after Abram’s wife, Sarai, who was infertile, gives Abram her Egyptian maidservant Hagar to bear him a son and Ishmael is born from this union. Abram was then 86 years old. Thirteen years later God appears to Abraham again. This time He promises Abram that Sarai would bear him a son. Sarai, being ninety years old at that time, laughs at this idea. But everything is again, 100% guaranteed and confirmed by another “annexed covenant” according to which God renames Abram to Abraham and ALL men become circumcised and circumcision becomes a fundamental and eternal element of the Abrahamic covenant.

The promise of Isaac’s birth sounds absolutely incredible even for those directly involved in these events at the time. The first reaction of both Abraham and Sarah is laughter. Abraham, moreover, seems to disbelieve this promise and by appealing to common sense he comforts himself with the fact that he already has a son born from a slave, so somehow the divine promise will be fulfilled:

Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!” (Gen 17:17-18)

That’s where Isaac’s name comes from: it means “he will laugh”, reflecting the laughter, in disbelief, of Abraham and Sarah, when told by God that they would have a child. Abraham was then 99 years old, Sara was 90. Even if we believe that the Bible doesn’t speak literally here and if we ‘convert’ their biblical lifespans to our contemporary lifespans, it still sounds incredible: Abraham lived 175 years, so let’s assume that it’s an equivalent of 100. In this scenario Abraham at the time of Isaac’s birth would be 57 and Sarah 51. Even though men lose their fertility with time and becoming a father at this age is not a particularly unrealistic scenario, it certainly was for Sarah and not really expected. The chances of a healthy natural conception after the age of 50 years are only 1%, not to mention that the risk of miscarriage or fetal defects is very high at this age.

What is important here is the message of the story: don’t always assume that what you consider impossible or even unthinkable is, in fact, impossible or unthinkable. That’s what Divine promises are often about – they often challenge our beliefs and common sense. In the same way faith, the human counterpart to divine promise, is at its core, suspending what we know and believe – going beyond reason and common sense. Faith is about making possible what is improbable (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.) The Divine voice that speaks inside us when we pray wants us to open our minds to the possibility of improbability, to the possibility of things we consider impossible. When we really open our minds and hearts and follow this voice we are able to see a world full of incredible possibilities. Once we see this we suddenly can see roadmaps to follow these openings and tools to make the change real. Opening our minds means questioning our patterns of thinking.

“Have faith and it will happen” – it sounds cliche, but it actually works. In non religious circles they made up the notion of “the Law of Attraction” to replace religious faith. The law of attraction says that you will attract into your life whatever you focus on. Whatever you give your energy and attention to will come to you. So, if you stay focused on the good and positive things in your life you will automatically attract more good and positive things into your life. If you follow with consistent action and you do not come into a conflict with commandments and ethical teachings it all becomes true and real.

To make a great jump in your life or to overcome a great challenge you must have faith. Good faith that God, or the circumstances, will serve you and that in turn gives you motivation and courage.

Imagine anyone moving from another country to start a new life. Imagine the faith required. But, not just faith, you have to follow the road map, learn new things and change patterns to make it work and when it works you are rewarded with enormous satisfaction. Similarly, this also happens when people decide to have children, regardless of if they “can afford it.” They are often ridiculed for their belief, “If God gives children He will provide for them.” But in reality, if they are responsible people, they adjust everything they do to the new situation and make due. “The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing” Psalm 34:10.

This is what makes improbable not only possible, but real: When we are in a new situation we have to adjust our actions to it. We have to make it work! by changing our mindset we change our situation. The new situation can change everything, even your life span. Abraham being 86 believed that he was approaching the end of his life. After receiving all the Divine promises he got another 89 years.

In our tradition we have many stories about people who have done incredible things. But the greatest testimony of faith and its outcomes is our Jewish history as a whole. I have not heard anyone who expressed this idea better than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

When I look at the Jewish people today I am awestruck. Here is a people that in 1945 stood eyeball-to-eyeball with the Angel of Death at Auschwitz. Had they remained traumatized for generations anyone would have understood. And yet, within three years they stood up and made the greatest collective affirmation in 2000 years. “I will not die, but I will live” by declaring the State of Israel. Secondly, the State of Israel itself which has achieved miracles, a country so small, so vulnerable, so surrounded by enemies, with so few natural resources has achieved great things and should, I think, be a symbol of hope for every small country, for every persecuted people. And that too, is cause for thanksgiving. Somehow or other, Jews having been through as close as you can get to hell on earth have come through, have not looked back, have looked forward, have not nurtured feelings of resentment and revenge, but have gone out and built the future. And if that is not a testament of the power of faith, I don’t know what is. Judaism remains, and the Jewish people remains a living symbol of hope, of the power of faith to let possibility defend probability.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA