A Random Walk With Rashi: With Radical Amazement

At long last, we reconvened our Rashi study group last week, after an extended vacation and holiday break.  Its good to be back in the proverbial saddle.

To recall where we last were, we have just begun the sequence of events (Chapter 21) in which Hashem finally “remembered” His promise to Sarah, whereupon she conceived and bore a son (Isaac), who was circumcised at the age of eight days, leading to our previous verse, in which Sarah provided ample word play around the word laughter – including not only as the basis for Isaac’s name, but also the joyful laughter that G-d has now provided her – both being in stark contrast to her nervous laughter when she first overheard that she would give birth.   All this in pretty short order, considering the 15+ years its taken us to get to this point.

Genesis 21:7:

And she said, “Who is the One Who said to Abraham, ‘Sarah would nurse children’? For I have borne a son in his old age!”

This is a curious verse at first blush.  We wonder, to begin with, who is Sarah speaking to, and for what purpose?  Since it seems clear that she is not speaking to Abraham, or for that matter to G-d, one might assume that she must be speaking to some person, or people, around her.  But is she?

And who is she speaking about?  For better or worse, as is often the case, we are a captive to the perspectives of our translators, who presumably assume they know, and give away the answer by capitalizing “Who” and other such words. The only Who we know is the Big Guy.  Or to the Sephardic, Numero Uno.

The seemingly simple phrase is also curious in that she refers – again – to Abraham’s old age, but not her own, perhaps since Abraham is 100 at this point, while she is but a mere 90.  This reminds us of the moment in Chapter 18 when she first overheard the angel telling Abraham that she would have  son.  Not only did she think to herself ‘how could I have a son, when he (Abraham) is so old’, but this led to G-d’s first little white lie. When recasting what He had heard to Abraham, G-d reconstrued her words as wondering how she could have a son when she, Sarah, was so old.  Thereby serving as the proof text for the proposition that a little white lie is permissible, when it serves to provide peace in the family (a proposition that remains a favorite of politicians to this day).

And finally, what was it that G-d had “said” to Abraham, essentially a promise that she is now referring to as having come to pass.

As usual, a lot of options bother us.  Lets see where Rashi ends up when he spins the exegetical dial. (I do like that word, all the more when I use it correctly).

This is an expression of praise and attribution and importance, as if to say “See Who He is and how great He is.  He keeps His promise and He promises and performs, i.e., and carries out His promise.

So we learn from Rashi, coupled with our discussion and a helpful footnote, that the phrase “Who is the One…” cannot be taken as a simple question, since Sarah knew full well that it was G-d Who informed Abraham that she would conceive.

Instead, her question is a rhetorical one, and her statement one of praise.  It reminds us of prayers like Michamocah – “who is greater than you?”.  We are not really expecting an answer when we ask that question, nor was she.

Interestingly, in the JPS Commentary for this verse, Sarah’s words are actually set off, as a poetic stanza, adding further weight (and translator perspective) that her words were almost songlike.

Who would have said to Abraham
That Sarah would suckle children!
Yet I have borne a son in his old age.

Our footnote continues, by telling us that Rashi understands the Hebrew for “Who said” (mi layl) as an expression of awe in the presence of majesty, as it is used in “Who it was that created these” (Isaiah 40:26), and in “Who wrought and accomplished” (Isaiah 41:4).  Some editions actually insert these verses into Rashi’s comment.

So it makes sense that Sarah seems to still be engulfed in the moment, and asks the question in a Heschelian, awestruck and appreciative, kind of way.

According to Rabbi A. Waskow, “Rabbi Heschel began both of the major volumes that make up his religious philosophy with chapters that focus on the sense of the ineffable, radical amazement, the sublime, wonder, the sense of mystery, awe, and glory. He wrote that ‘The root of religion is the question what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder and amazement.’ (God in Search of Man, p. 162) Once asked by an interviewer what he believed to be his greatest gift, Heschel replied, ‘My ability to be surprised.’”

In his next commentary, Rashi focuses – surprise! – on the phrase “who said”.

Scripture deviated from its standard wording, and did not say ‘spoke’ because the numerical value of the word [mi layl] is one hundred, as if to say, at the end of one hundred years of Abraham’s life, Sarah would nurse children.  What is the reason for Scripture’s use of the word “children” in the plural?  On the day of the feast, the princesses brought their children with them, and [Sarah] nursed them, because [the princesses] were saying, “Sarah did not give birth”, but rather, she brought home an abandoned child from the marketplace”.

Rashi seems to pick up on the unusual nature of the phrase “who said”, in that it appears in a place where it would seem that “who spoke” would suffice, and be more natural.  What meaning are we to derive from that?  His answer, in this case, is unusual for Rashi.  While he typically focuses on the pshat, or straightforward meaning of such words, he occasionally delves into the drash (homiletical or exegetical).  Rarely he delves even more deeply, into the remez (allegorical perspective), and perhaps most rarely of all does he get to the point of sod – the hidden or mystical, as often revealed in gematria.

In this case, Rashi concludes that Abraham is 100 years old, and the value of the letters making up “Who spoke” tally to the same number.

A bit odd for Rashi, but what is neat is, it works for us.

And finally, why the use of ‘children’, in the plural form, when all she seemingly begat was Isaac?  Rashi explains this in a way that vaguely recalls the earlier scene with Abimelech – where Rashi suggested that Abimelech’s payoff to Sarah was intended to prevent what people might otherwise say about a possible tryst between Abimelech and Sarah.  In our current scene, Rashi sees the use of children, plural, as again tying in with Sarah’s desire to avoid gossip, on the chance people might think that she found the child, rather than created him from scratch.

Sarah and Abraham seemed to live very public lives, leading often to the geopolitical undertones that Rashi tended to find in the story.

As we dive into verse 8 this week, things will start to happen in rapid succession, beginning with a feast, reminiscent again of the connection between laughter and eating, and the abilities of both to connect people.

May we all eat and laugh, preferably together, and never cease to be amazed.

(Photo: swamibu)