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.
Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God, which was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Finalist, and one of Publishers’ Weekly’s Top 10 Religion Stories of the Year. An associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, she is The Forward’s language columnist and has a lifelong love of the Book of Isaiah.