When the angels visit Abraham to inform him that he will soon father a child, Sarah listens in from the sidelines. “Where is your wife Sarah?” (Gen. 18:9), the angels inquire, as if they are uncomfortable relaying news that will affect her so intimately—transforming not just her destiny but also her physical body—without at least knowing her whereabouts. The Torah relates that Sarah was listening from the entrance of the tent and Abraham was behind her, presumably unaware of her presence. When Sarah hears the news, she laughs b’kirbah, in that same inner space in which Rebecca would later feel the twins moving inside her (“and the boys struggled in her womb, b’kirbah,” [Gen. 25:22]). It is an instinctive laughter, one that is followed but not preceded by language: “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?” (18:12). Sarah may be laughing out of joy and wonder, but God gets angry at her seeming lack of faith and confides in Abraham – an exchange which the Talmud draws on to offer a lesson in the relative merits of truth and peace.
The Talmud in tractate Yevamot (65b) discusses this scene in an extended passage about the merit of preserving peace and harmony between individuals. The Talmud cites several instances in which biblical characters deviated from the truth or told a “white lie” in order to avoid causing offense. Following Jacob’s death, for instance, Joseph’s brothers told Joseph that their father had commanded them to tell him to pardon them (Gen. 50:16-17). Jacob never said any such thing, but his sons falsely attributed this statement to him in order to make peace with Joseph.
The Talmudic passage culminates with the assertion that even God deviated from the truth in order to make peace between individuals, citing a verse from our parsha: “Then the Lord said to Abraham: Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?” (18:14). This reads like a quote within a quote, but it is in fact a misquotation. Sarah actually expressed surprise at the news given her husband’s advanced age, but God omits all mention of Abraham. “Great is peace,” teaches the Talmud, since even God departed from the truth to preserve peace. God did not want Abraham to be angry at Sarah for laughing at his age, and so God stepped in as marriage counselor and emended Sarah’s words for the sake of peace.
The midrash in Leviticus Rabbah (9:9), picking up on this teaching, contains an extended discussion of the value of peace. Rabbi Yishmael points out that peace is so important that God was even willing to allow His great name to be blotted out in water for the sake of marital harmony. This is a reference to the Sotah ritual, in which a scroll containing God’s name is erased in water in a trial by ordeal conducted in the Temple to prove whether a woman suspected of adultery is guilty or not. According to the Talmud, God’s signature is truth (Shabbat 55a), and so when God’s name is dissolved in water, truth is erased for the sake of peace. Sometimes it is necessary to embellish or to change the details ever so slightly so as to avoid offending another person or mend a rift, and even God is not above dissolving truth for the sake of peace.
And yet perhaps the tension is not really between truth and peace, but between two different kinds of truth. There is the truth of what “really” happened – what we might call factual or objective truth. This is the truth that historians and scientists are beholden to, and it would be wrong if not criminal to willfully deviate from it. But there is also the truth of what we mean and what we feel at any given moment – what we might call emotional truth. This is the truth that poets and novelists seek to capture. Often a novelist will develop the germ of a character or scene from real-life people and events and then change the details while remaining true to the emotional reality – and, in so doing, offer deeper insight into how it feels to be a particular person, or to undergo a particular experience.
The factual or objective truth, based on what Sarah uttered, was that she was incredulous that her husband might bring her pleasure when he was so advanced in years: “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?” (18:12). But the emotional truth, which she could not even bring herself to say, is captured by her laughter and articulated by God: Sarah was astonished by the possibility of miraculously conceiving after so many years of hoping against hope. God, cognizant of what was happening b’kirbah—in her womb, and in her innermost self—reinterpreted her words so that they reflected this emotional truth and thus restored peace between Abraham and Sarah, who went on to name their long-awaited child for the laughter invoked by God to heal the rift.