We read in Parashat Vayeira of the visit paid by three angels to Avraham, during which they informed him that his wife, Sara, would soon conceive and bear a son after decades of infertility. The Torah tells that Sara was at the entrance of the tent as Avraham served the guests outside, and she heard the angel tell Avraham that she would bear a child. Sara laughed in disbelief, wondering how an aged woman like her could possibly conceive (18:12).
In presenting this account, the Torah relates that Sara was listening to the angel as she stood at the entrance to the tent, adding, “ve-hu acharav” – “and he/it was behind him/it” (18:10). This ambiguous phrase lends itself to different interpretations, but the most common explanation, followed by Rashi, the Rashbam and others, is that the entrance to the tent was behind the angel who was speaking. The Torah here describes that the angel sat with his back to the entrance of the tent, where Sara stood and listened to what he was telling Avraham.
The question arises as to why this piece of information is important and relevant to the story. Seemingly, the point being made is that the angel could not see Sara, because he was sitting with his back turned to her. But why is this detail significant?
Rav Nissan Alpert, in Limudei Nissan, suggests that to the contrary, the Torah’s intent is to inform us not that the angel could not see Sara, but rather that Sara could not see the angel. The Torah here indicates that part of the reason why Sara laughed in disbelief is because she could not see the angel’s face as he spoke. If she had seen the angel’s face, Rav Alpert posits, then even though she was unaware that this was an angel, the angel’s appearance would have made his words more persuasive and impactful. The news that seemed so strange and so unlikely would have come across as more believable had Sara not only heard it being spoken, but also seen the speaker.
Oftentimes, we tend to instinctively “laugh” and deride thoughts and ideas that we hear expressed by other people, without taking the time to “see” the speaker, to pay close attention and carefully consider what is being said. What at first appears astonishing might become more compelling – and, as in the case of the angel, might turn out to be correct – after it is assessed with some patience, objectivity, and an open mind. Of course, we must not naively accept everything we hear. But the Torah here warns against the kneejerk reaction of “laughter,” of derision and rejection, urging instead to “see” the one who speaks, to be patient, maintain objectivity, and keep an open mind so we will always be learning and growing throughout our lives.