In Parashat VaYeira, three Malachim visit Avraham to inform him that Sarah will have a child. Sarah is criticized for laughing at this information. The Torah states, “VaYomer Hashem El Avraham Lamah Zeh Tzachakah Sarah Leimor HaAf Umnam Eileid VaAni Zakanti HaYipalei MeiHashem Davar,” “Hashem said to Avraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, saying, “Is it true that I will give birth though I have aged?” Is anything beyond Hashem?’” (BeReishit 18:13-14). However, how was Sarah expected to know that the message came from Hashem? The Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 50:4; quoted in Rashi BeReishit 18:4 s.v. “VeRachatzu Ragleichem”) states that Avraham gave the Malachim water to wash their feet because he thought they were worshippers of the dust on their feet. Since he didn’t want to bring Avodah Zarah into his house, he made sure that the dust on their feet would be removed outside the house. If Avraham was unaware of the angelic status of his guests, it would appear that Sarah could not have been expected to know better. Why, then, is she criticized for doubting their message?
Perhaps it can be suggested that Sarah could indeed be expected to know who the guests were if Avraham did not. Avraham was widely known as a man who performed Chessed for the entire world. To him, the righteousness of the recipient of his kindness did not matter much. He, therefore, had no need to be skilled at judging anyone’s level of righteousness. His approach was always to avoid all risks by assuming the worst and assuming the best at the same time. To protect himself from others, he often assumed the worst of people, as he did when giving his guests water to wash their feet. He also instructed Sarah, “El Kol HaMakom Asher Navo Shamah Imri Li Achi Hu,” “To whatever place we come, say of me, ‘He is my brother’” (BeReishit 20:13), trying to avoid others taking his wife from him. It is noteworthy that he told Sarah to do this in “Kol HaMakom,” “whatever place,” without attempting to evaluate the righteousness of the place first. But at the same time, he accepts the possibly dust-worshipping guests and servants from the possibly unrighteous places into his home because he also assumes the best of them. He is loath to chase away anyone who might be a worthy recipient of Chessed. When Hagar married Avraham, became pregnant, and viewed her mistress Sarah lightly, Avraham did not send her away, and Sarah has to criticize him for it and herself chase Hagar away with hard work. Similarly, when Sarah advised Avraham to chase Yishmael away for Yitzchak’s sake, “VaYeira HaDavar Meod BeEinei Avraham,” “The matter greatly distressed Avraham” (BeReishit 21:11). When Hashem told Avraham to sacrifice his son “Asher Ahavta,” “Whom you love” (BeReishit 22:2), Avraham was unsure whether it was Yishmaeil or Yitzchak due to his equal love for the two of them. It is this seeming inability to distinguish between the evil Yishmaeil and the righteous Yitzchak that characterizes Avraham’s lack of character judgment ability.
Sarah, on the other hand, had a sharp sense of the righteousness of people. She also accepted only the most righteous and disposed of everyone else. This is why it was Sarah who was so upset at Hagar’s behavior that she worked her hard enough to chase her away. This is why it was Sarah who recognized the danger Yishmaeil posed to Yitzchak and immediately suggested to Avraham to chase him away. This is why it was Sarah who was able to recognize the spiritual level of Avraham’s guests immediately and knew they were Malachim. This is why Sarah was criticized for laughing at the message which she knew, in fact, came from Hashem.
It is important to note that both Avraham and Sarah became ancestors of the entire Jewish people. It does not matter whether one is able or unable to accurately determine characteristics of people he or she meets. What is important is each person’s use of his or her abilities. Avraham was able to utilize his character as a man of Chessed, able to treat everyone equally while also protecting himself. Sarah, on the other hand, was criticized for not utilizing her ability, for being able to determine the trustworthiness of a message’s source but then ignoring it. May we all learn to use our abilities properly and further the interests of the Jewish people.