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Excerpt from The Gram­mar of God by Aviya Kushner.

One of my biggest fears is that I will die because I have talked too much. In my yeshi­va day school, I was taught that every human being has a lim­it­ed num­ber of words, and then that’s it — you’re gone. Every few months I start wor­ry­ing about my tal­ly, and I try to talk less. I warn my friends that a new, qui­eter life lies ahead, but they don’t believe me. With­in days, my resolve fades and I’m chat­ter­ing again, let­ting the words pile up danger­ously. Despite the fact that every­one in my fam­i­ly is famil­iar with the threat of the con­stant tick­ing of words, most of my rel­a­tives are cheer­ful, death-defy­ing blabbermouths. 

And yet, among the blab­ber­mouths, there is my sis­ter, who utters a nor­mal amount of words. Maybe that’s why she gets so much done. Once, in the mid­dle of din­ner, my par­ents compli­mented her on her mag­nif­i­cent, chat­ter­less effi­cien­cy. She had, as usu­al, brought order to a huge array of bowls of soup to be salt­ed and spiced, mounds of food to be tak­en out of ovens and placed on plat­ters and matched with serv­ing spoons — with­out talk­ing about it. But she had an unusu­al reac­tion to the com­pli­ment. Emor me’at ve’aseh har­beh,” she said. Say lit­tle and do much.” And then, very soft­ly, she added: It’s the first thing you learn in school, from Avra­ham Avinu.”

My sis­ter was cred­it­ing Abra­ham, or, as she called him, Abra­ham our Father, for the way she goes about her work. The rest of us kept eat­ing, stunned, for once, into silence. In the qui­et, I thought again about how much our ear­ly life, how the way we read and heard the Bible, has affect­ed all of my sib­lings. And so my sis­ter, a man­age­ment con­sul­tant and entre­pre­neur, sit­ting in front of me in per­fect­ly ironed busi­ness clothes, cut­ting her food into pieces that were all exact­ly the same size — that sis­ter noticed how Abra­ham rushed to get but­ter and milk, rushed to del­e­gate, and coor­di­nat­ed all the tasks to wel­come the vis­it­ing mes­sen­gers who came to tell him he and Sarah would soon have a child. My sis­ter noticed how swift he was, and how few words he need­ed to man­age the entire expe­ri­ence. Slow and inef­fi­cient as I am, I nev­er noticed how Abra­ham ran, how he did not make time to chat. In my uni­verse of con­stant chat­ter, that grand, ancient, patri­ar­chal qui­et was impos­si­ble to hear.

I did notice some­thing else about the sto­ry in Hebrew: how Sarah laughed. It is not a stan­dard laugh. Va’titzchak Sarah be’kirba. Lit­er­al­ly, it means and Sarah laughed deep inside of her­self.” Or maybe more accu­rate­ly: And Sarah laughed in her gut.” Many trans­la­tions, like the 1989 New Revised Stan­dard Ver­sion, Catho­lic Edi­tion, try to make that neater, and so they say sim­ply, Sarah laughed to her­self.” But it’s messier than that; it’s an unusu­al laugh, and I wish that would come through more clear­ly in trans­lation. Inter­est­ing­ly, some old­er trans­la­tions like the King James and the Gene­va Bible seem to empha­size the intense inner nature of this laugh more than new­er trans­la­tions do — they both choose with­in her­self” instead of the tamer to herself.”

How Sarah laughed reminds me of an ear­li­er scene in the Gar­den of Eden, which was the last time in Gen­e­sis that what a woman heard and how she react­ed to some­thing a lit­tle dif­fi­cult to process were at cen­ter stage. Some of the Bible’s most res­o­nant moments are depict­ed by ges­ture instead of speech. God sees; Eve eats the apple; Lot’s wife turns back; and Sarah mem­o­rably laughs. One thing is clear,” my father says when the sub­ject of Sarah comes up. It was silent laugh­ter, enabling Sarah lat­er to deny that she laughed.”

I am not cer­tain that the laugh­ter is clear. Per­haps under­standing Sarah’s laugh­ter involves under­stand­ing the vers­es that frame it. Her laugh­ter comes after sev­er­al chap­ters of chal­leng­ing cir­cum­stances — from relo­ca­tion to a for­eign place, where Abra­ham intro­duces her as his sis­ter, to years of bar­ren­ness, to strife with her maid, who is also her husband’s con­cu­bine. It comes after sev­er­al vers­es that elab­o­rate­ly describe how old she is. They are vers­es full of speech, packed with detail.

All of this has not gone unno­ticed by the bib­li­cal commenta­tors who have scru­ti­nized Sarah for thou­sands of years. In the rab­bis’ hands, the dis­cus­sion of the intrigu­ing tri­an­gle of Abra­ham, Sarah, and God becomes a con­ver­sa­tion on how to behave. 

Reprint­ed by arrange­ment with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Ran­dom House, a divi­sion of Pen­guin Ran­dom House LLC. Copy­right © 2015 by Aviya Kushner.

Relat­ed Content:

Aviya Kush­n­er grew up in a Hebrew-speak­ing home in New York. Once an Inter­na­tion­al Jerusalem Post trav­el colum­nist, she now teach­es in the non­fic­tion writ­ing pro­gram at Colum­bia Col­lege Chica­go. She is also a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at A Pub­lic Space and a men­tor for the Nation­al Yid­dish Book Center.