Towards the beginning of this week’s parsha, a very surprising thing occurs. Sarah Imeinu, renowned in divreiChazal for her prophecy and righteousness, is accused of having laughed in disbelief upon being informed that she will bear a son. This itself is unexpected, but we can explain this by pointing out that Sarah had no reason to assume that the informant was other than an itinerant, welcomed into their tent by her husband Avraham. What is more troubling is her response to the accusation. The passuk tells us “vatechachesh Sarah lemor lo tzachakti, kiyarea” – “Sarah denied the accusation, saying “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid.” This is extremely baffling! How can it be that a woman who, together with Avraham, spent her life disseminating the knowledge of HaShem as the only G-d, could deny the accusation, and not understand that obviously HaShem knows the truth of what occurred, and her denial could achieve nothing more than exacerbate the offence.
Interestingly, the TargumYonasan on the passuk gives a slightly different explanation. The passuk continues, “vayomer lo, kitzachakt” – “and he said “not so, rather you did laugh.”” According to most mefarshim, this is merely the contradiction of her denial. However, the TargumYonasan translates the word “ki” not merely as “rather,” but as “correctly.” That is, that according to the TargumYonasan the continuation of the passuk is not refuting her denial of her guilt, but in fact affirming that what she did was correct, and that there was nothing sinful about her having laughed. This explanation must assume that her laughter was joyous rather than disbelieving, as Rashi explains about the laughter of Avraham at the end of last week’s parsha. However, it is difficult to understand what exactly was HaShem accusing Sarah of doing wrong, if He immediately afterwards tells her that she did nothing wrong all along, and most mefarshim do not follow this understanding.
The OhrHaChaim makes a very interesting suggestion. The word “yir’ah,” generally translated as “fear,” also means “awe.” The distinction between these two concepts with reference to YirasShamayim is often worded as “yir’asha’onesh” – “fear of retribution,” and “yir’asharomemus” – “awe of G-d’s supremacy.” The simple meaning of our passuk ascribes to Sarah “yir’asha’onesh” “fear of retribution,” and we understand this to mean that her fear of punishment made her deny the accusation. The OhrHaChaim suggests that this is not what it means. Sarah’s elevated level of recognition of HaShem made her aware of man’s subservience to HaShem. She was totally conscious of this fact, and her every act was performed with the feeling of being HaShem’s devoted servant. Although Sarah definitely was fully aware of G-d’s omniscience, and that of course HaShem knew of her laughter, and the falsehood of her denial, nevertheless, she could not bring herself to utter the words that would speak out explicitly that she had sinned against her Master. He says that for someone in so much awe of his master, it is virtually impossible to utter those words, even when in full recognition that the master knows the truth and that the denial achieves absolutely nothing.
Despite this, HaShem’s response is “not so, rather you did laugh.” The OhrHaChaim explains that at this point HaShem is teaching us a fundamental rule of teshuva. Throughout the tefillos of the Yom Kippur we confess our sins to HaShem. The mefarshim explain that despite all the detail in the confession, the main point is the one word “chatasi” – “I have sinned.” It is the basis of all teshuva that the sinner should confess explicitly that he has sinned, that he has abrogated the will of HaShem. However difficult it is to state before G-d that one has sinned against Him, without this explicit statement there cannot be a full teshuva.