Parshat Vayera teaches us that after years of being told they would have a son, Avraham, now one hundred years old and Sarah, now ninety, finally see that promise come to pass. And when the boy is born, Sarah exclaims, “God has brought me laughter. Everyone who hears will laugh ‘Li’” (Bereshit 21:6).
The word "Li" can be read in two different ways. Either, "Everyone who hears will laugh with me," which is how many commentators understand her words. That is to say, everyone who hears that Avraham and Sarah actually have a son will be so happy they'll be unable to restrain expressing their joy along with the gushing parents. The people will celebrate with them, they'll sing with them, they'll laugh in elation with them: "Everyone who hears will laugh with me." Or, the word “Li” can be read according to its more common usage: "Everyone who hears will laugh at me." Laughing with someone and laughing at someone are two entirely different things. The horrible realization that you were being laughed at when you thought you were being laughed with conjures up some of our worst social fears – from childhood to adulthood. So, let's explore the latter interpretation’s deeper meaning. What does it mean that Sarah thinks people will laugh at her for having Yitzchak?
According to Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, "The world knew of the ambitions of Avraham and Sarah, those two rare individuals who dared to swim against the tide of the times. The world knew of their daring hope of ultimately stemming this mighty stream and turning it in another direction. And now, yet another absurd ambition: to graft this daring hope onto a late-born, tender sapling! Should it surprise us that our ancestors' contemporaries, when looking at the cradle of the Jewish people, could not repress a mocking smile? To this very day, people – who in reckoning about historical events and world affairs assign no place to God – jeer and mock at the world-embracing, world-historic Jewish people. From the very beginning, we, the Jews, have been put in this position. The first Jewish son was called Yitzchak, and we will continue to be called by this name until the hopes founded on God's providence and promises are fulfilled" (Commentary on Bereshit 21:6).
You see, it's not so much that Sarah was afraid that people would laugh at her, a ninety-year-old woman bearing a child. What Sarah was really expressing was something so much deeper – this child represents how others in the world will view the Jewish people – this small group of people, this small band of outcast dreamers who have consistently defied every statistic, every obstacle, every expectation and every barrier that has ever stood in their way. Those who would laugh at Sarah would laugh at the thought of the establishment of a Jewish State in 1948. Those who would laugh at Sarah would laugh at Israel's miraculous contributions to the world, in technology, science, medicine, art and agriculture. Those who would laugh at Sarah would laugh at the success of the Jewish people as a whole, despite anti-Semitism, crusades, pogroms, inquisitions, and yes, a genocide. Those who would laugh at Sarah could never believe that the desert could bloom and that dry bones could rise from the ground. A cynical, skeptical, antagonistic attitude towards the Jewish people was born with the birth of Yitzchak. But here's the thing! It is our holy, unending task to help the nations of the world understand that all that we have overcome and achieved is only because of God's Will, providence and help. It is God, not us, Who makes the impossible possible. And perhaps this is why we read this very story on Rosh HaShanah, because Rosh HaShanah is all about making God King over all creation. As Jews, we are the instruments through which the world can know that God exists, and that His providence extends over all. As the story goes, a king once asked his prime minister, "How can I know that God exists?" The prime minister replied, "The Jews, your majesty, the Jews!" We, the Jewish people, show the world what is possible because of God.
There will always be those who laugh at us. There will always be those who scoff and mock us – individuals, leaders and even international bodies, people invested with the highest earthly authority, because the Jewish people consistently show them the reality that God is King, and they are not. But, as King David writes, “Then our mouths will be filled with laughter” (Psalm 126:2). The day will come when all the world will laugh together. It will not be the laughter of derision, but the sweet laughter of joy and genuine fellowship. Our hope, our Jewish hope, is that as we strive to crown God King over creation every day, we feel worthy enough to serve as His ambassadors to the world to spread the idea that all is possible with the help of God. We, as Jews, serve as that model to the world, and we pray that others will accept His sovereignty upon themselves as well, enabling all humanity to realize that through His people, God makes all things possible.