A Challenging Question
A beloved congregant related to me that he was challenged by a co-worker with the following question: “Do you truly believe that the Biblical Sarah gave birth at the age of ninety?” The congregant asked me how to respond.
The question is indeed a valid one. Why should or how could a reasonable individual believe that a post-menopausal woman gave birth at age ninety? A proper response requires us to delve deeply into the story of Sarah’s laughter at the report by the angels visiting her home, as recorded in BeReishit Perek 18.
Sarah’s Puzzling Laughter
It is quite shocking that Sarah Imeinu laughed at the angel’s report that Hashem will send her a child within short time. The response to Sarah Imeinu’s laughter – “Is anything beyond Hashem’s capabilities?” (18:14) – is something that should have been very apparent to Sarah. It seems quite apparent from Sefer BeReishit that Sarah Imeniu is a full partner in Avraham Avinu’s spiritual quest and wholeheartedly shares Avraham Avinu’s Emunah. Our question is all the more troubling in light of Rashi’s observation (21:12 s.v. Shema BeKolah) that Sarah’s Nevi’ut (stature as a Navi) was superior to that of Avraham Avinu. How could someone who was on a higher spiritual level than Avraham Avinu have doubted the capabilities of Hashem?
Neis Nistar is Preferred over a Neis Nigleh
An answer to our dilemma lies in Hashem’s preference of a Neis Nistar, a “hidden” miracle in which Hashem acts in a subtle manner and does not override the laws of nature, over a Neis Nigleh, an overt miracle such as Keri’at Yam Suf (splitting of the Red Sea) that involves a violation of the laws of nature. A Neis Nistar is preferred by Hashem since people must make an effort to discover Hashem, for doing so allows a legitimate relationship to develop between humans and Hashem.
The following story, recorded in Shabbat 53b, illustrates this principle:
“There once was a man whose wife died and left him with an infant to nurse, and he could not afford to pay a woman to nurse the baby. A miracle occurred, and the man grew breasts like a woman, and he nursed his child. Rav Yosef said: ‘Come and see just how great this man must be that such a miracle was performed for him!’ Abbayei countered: ‘On the contrary. How bad this man must be that the order of nature was changed for him.’”
The fact that Abbayei is given the last word in this passage demonstrates that his opinion is accepted.
The Gemara elsewhere (Ta’anit 23b) relates a similar story:
“Rav Mani was a student of Rav Yitzchak ben Eliyashiv. Once, he came crying to his Rebbe, saying, ‘The rich members of my father-in-law’s house trouble and afflict me.’ ‘May they become poor,’ Rav Yitzchak told him. Some time later, he again came to complain before Rav Yitzchak, saying, ‘Now, they are pressuring me to support them. They tell me they have nothing to eat.’ ‘May they become rich,’ Rav Yitzchak prayed, and so it was. A different time, Rav Mani came before Rav Yitzchak and complained, ‘My wife is unattractive and I find it difficult to look at her.’ ‘What is her name?’ R' Yitzchak asked. ‘Chanah.’ ‘May Chanah become beautiful,’ Rav Yitzchak prayed, and so it was. A short while later, Rav Mani again came with the complaint. ‘She is beautiful now,’ he cried, ‘and treats me in an arrogant way.’ ‘If so,’ R' Yitzchak said, ‘May she again be plain.’ And so it was. Two students of Rav Yitzchak ben Eliyashiv once asked him, ‘Rebbe, pray for us that we should become Torah scholars.’ ‘Once, I could do this,’ he answered them, ‘whatever I would pray for, the heavens would grant me. Now, I have returned this gift to heaven.’
Maharsha explains that Rav Yitzchak ben Eliashiv realized that Hashem prefers to work through natural means instead of through miracles.
Understanding Sarah Imeinu’s Laughter
Sarah Imeinu realized this point as well. This became obvious to her from the fact that Hashem did not intervene on her behalf or Avraham Avinu’s behalf with a violation of the laws of nature unless it was absolutely necessary. For example, Hashem did not overtly appear to Avraham and Sarah when they arrived at their complete realization of Hashem’s existence.
Accordingly, Sarah Imeinu found it difficult to believe that Hashem would send her a child in her post-menopausal state at age ninety. Sarah Imeinu reasoned that if Hashem wanted her to have a child, He would have sent her a child before she reached menopause, since He almost always acts in a natural manner.
Thus, Sarah Imeinu reasoned that the three men who visited her family could not be angels (as stated by Ramban in his commentary to BeReishit 18:12), since their report did not make sense. The response to Sarah Imeinu then was, appropriately, “Is anything beyond Hashem’s capabilities,” meaning that Hashem deems it necessary for her to have a child in a miraculous manner and that the three visitors were indeed angels.
The Necessity of Sarah Having a Child at Age Ninety
While we have explained Sarah Imeinu’s laughter, we must still explain why Hashem felt it necessary for Sarah to have a child in a miraculous manner. We can answer based on the principle of “Ma’aseh Avot Siman LeBanim”,that the actions of our Avot and Imahot (founding fathers and mothers) serve as a blueprint for the history of their descendants, the Jewish People.
Seforno (BeReishit 18:12) observes that Hashem performed a sort of Techiyat HaMeitim (revival from death) of Sarah’s uterus. Hashem felt this was necessary in order to embed the phenomenon of Techiyat HaMeitim into the basic fabric and makeup of the Jewish People. The Jewish People have repeatedly rebounded from situations during which, given the usual course of history, their demise should have ensued. We emerged intact from slavery in Egypt, the Egyptian attack at the Yam Suf (Red Sea), the Babylonian Exile, Haman’s decree, the Hellenistic persecutions in the Hasmonean era, the Roman destruction, and Spanish Inquisitions, to name only the major situations where the Jewish People were close to extinction.
In more recent times, the incredible change in tide from the Holocaust ending in 1945 to the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael in 1947 is a prime example of how the Jewish People have been “revived from the dead.” Another modern day example is how Orthodox Judaism was heading in the direction of elimination in the mid-twentieth century. Sociologists in the 1950’s and even 1960’s predicted the demise of Orthodox Judaism. In the meantime, Orthodox Judaism has been revitalized and is growing exponentially while all other Jewish denominations are disintegrating.
Shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion was willing to grant dispensation to Yeshivah students from army service since he deemed Yeshiva students to be a relic that would soon die out. He hardly imagined a scenario where a burgeoning population of many hundreds of thousands of scrupulously observant Orthodox Jews would be clamoring for exemptions from army service in order to devote themselves to full time Torah study.
The Jewish Nation was created in a manner of Techiyat HaMeitim with the revival of Sarah Imeinu’s body so that the Jewish People would bear the characteristic ability of renewal when all seems hopeless and foregone.
A Response to the Skeptic
Armed with this analysis, we may respond to the skeptic who argues that a reasonable person should not believe that Sarah Imeinu gave birth to Yitzchak Avinu at age ninety. One need only to observe the recurring pattern in Jewish History of frequent revivals of the Jewish People that run counter to normal historical and sociological patterns to believe that such a people began in a miraculous manner. One needs only to observe the miraculous revival of Eretz Yisrael and the Jewish People in Eretz Yisrael over the past one hundred plus years in order to believe that Sarah Imeinu had a child at age ninety.
 Rav Yitzchak ben Eliashiv seems to have arrived at this conclusion from the lack of success of the violations of nature brought about through his prayers.
 Such as when Hashem saved Avraham Avinu from Nimrod’s Kivshan HaEish (fiery furnace; BeReishit Rabbah 38:13).
 Ramban develops this point at length in his commentary to Sefer Bereishit, beginning with his comments to Bereishit 12:6.