So G-d said to Abraham, “Be not distressed over the youth [Ishmael] or your slavewoman [Hagar]: Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice, since through Isaac will offspring be considered yours. (Gen. 21:12)
On Rosh Hashanah our people re-read the story of the binding of Isaac. Our book of teachings, our Torah is as relevant today as when it was first given to our people 3300 years ago. And although the Akedah story has been retold and interpreted in different ways and at different times, the story represents our eternal conflict between the universal and the particular.
Abram passed into the land…until the Plain of Moreh. The Canaanite was then in the land. Hashem said to Abram, “To your offspring I will give this land. … Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth! For to you will I give it. And Abram… dwelled in the plains of Mamre which are in Hebron… (Gen. 12:6-13:18).
Not long after, there is a war of the four kings, and Abram hears that his nephew Lot had been taken captive. Abram arms 318 of his men (Gen. 14:13-16) — a ransom would not be paid. Lot’s freedom would be paid for in lives. Blood for blood. They strike at night and rescue Lot.
And it is after Abram’s victory that Malchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine and made a kiddush for Abram, saying: “Blessed is Abram of G-d, the Most High…and blessed be G-d, the Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.” (Gen. 14:18-20) With the odds seemingly against him, Abram became the victorious warrior, representing the few against the many. He had made a name not only for himself but for his G-d, and Hashem tells Abram, “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great.” (Gen. 15:1) [But if I will be your shield, you, Abram, must always be willing to be the sword.]
Abram listens to Sarai and has a child with her maidservant Hagar. Abram’s joy turns to pain upon hearing that Ishmael will not be his inheritor. Abram, the uncircumcised, begets Ishmael. Only after entering into the covenant of circumcision, Abraham, the circumcised, will beget Isaac, his inheritor. Separation. Chosenness. Covenant with G-d. Covenant with the land. G-d had promised Abraham and his offspring after him “the land of your sojourns — the whole land of Canaan — as an everlasting possession; and I shall be a G-d to them.” (Gen. 17:8) Before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, there was the covenant with the land.
G-d reminds Abraham, “Be not distressed over the youth [Ishmael]…” But the youth is Abraham’s flesh and blood! He had longed for a child — for a son. Yet when Abraham finally becomes a proud father, G-d informs him that Ishmael, his firstborn, will not be the son who will lead his covenantal people. Although he doesn’t question G-d, imagine Abraham’s frustration — his distress — as G-d commands him to listen to Sarah. “Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice, since through Isaac will offspring be considered yours.” (Gen. 21:12) Only through Sarah, says G-d, will come the son for Abraham’s future inheritance. Abraham remembered throwing himself upon his face and laughing. “Shall a child be born to a hundred-year-old man?” he thought. “And shall Sarah — a ninety-year-old woman — give birth?” (Gen. 17:17) Yes, it would take a miracle. It could only be through a miracle.
The eternal gauntlet of separation, distinction and particularism had been thrown down, and the internal conflict for future generations was set in motion. “Do not be distressed…” But Abraham clearly was distressed, a feeling he would not easily overcome. But Sarah understood, as she laughed with joy. She was the ultimate believer with faith in the covenant.
Remember, it was Abraham who beseeched G-d when Ishmael was born, “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!” (Gen. 17:18) But that was not the plan. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments that “Abraham was shocked at what he understood to be a strong implication that Ishmael was unworthy of being his successor.” (Stone Chumash, p. 76) But G-d responded, “Your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will fulfill My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. But regarding Ishmael I have heard you … and I will make him into a great nation. But I will maintain My covenant [only] through Isaac whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” (Gen. 17:19-21) Have faith, Abraham. And at the age of ninety-nine, before the birth of Isaac, Abraham circumcised himself as G-d had commanded. A command of separation and particularism. Abraham’s act of faith and covenant.
Again G-d tested Abraham’s universalism at Sodom and Gomorrah. It was well known that Sodom and Gomorrah were places of evil, yet when G-d told Abraham He was about to destroy the city of Sodom, Abraham challenged G-d with the words, “Will You sweep away the innocent with the guilty? What if there were fifty innocent in the city? Will You not forgive it for the sake of fifty? … Will You not forgive it for the sake of ten? ” And G-d answered, “I will not destroy on account of the ten.” (Gen. 18:23-32) But there were not ten. Walking away in silence, what had Abraham learned from his test at Sodom? He had not believed the promise that Sarah would have a son in her old age. He had not believed that in Sodom there were no innocents. As it is written, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
To protect himself, Abraham claims Sarah is his sister. What happened to “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great”? (Gen. 15:1) Why was Abraham still so skeptical? In the universal world there are always fears and there are always seductions. Faith can be hard to come by. Had Abraham’s mounting skepticism affected his relationship with Sarah? Could he separate from Ishmael? Would he? Shortly thereafter, as promised, Sarah gave birth to a son. A son who gave her laughter. Yet Abraham is silent. What are you thinking, Abraham, when Sarah says: “G-d has made laughter for me; whoever hears will laugh for me.” (Gen. 21:6) What about Abraham? Had their relationship changed?
When Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him. Sarah, living in the world of emunah, laughed, for “G-d has brought me joy.” But again, where is Abraham? Was he still thinking of Ishmael, his first son? The particularistic conflict and tension between Ishmael and Isaac presented an emotional test for Abraham, as he remembered G-d’s command: only through Isaac. But now Abraham had two sons: Ishmael, who represented the universal, and Isaac, who represented the particular. Did he love one more than the other?
Ishmael had lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother found him a wife from the land of Egypt. Sometime later, Abraham is confronted with Abimelech and Phicol, chief of Abimelech’s troops in the land of Canaan. And Abimelech, having heard of Abraham’s exploits, acknowledges Abraham’s special relationship: “G-d is with you in all that you do. Now swear to me here by G-d that you will not deal falsely with me nor with my kin; according to the kindness that I have done with you, do with me.” (Gen. 21:22-23) Confronted with the conflict between the universal world and the covenantal particularistic world, Abraham again seems uncomfortable with his particularistic mission. The land was given by G-d. Why did Abraham enter into a covenant with Abimelech and Phicol? Thereafter, “Abraham resided in the land of the Philistines for many years.” (Gen. 21:34)
“And it happened after these things that G-d tested Abraham and called to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he replied, ‘Hineini’ (Here I am.)” (Gen. 22:1) But what were “these things” — and where was he? He had lived with the Philistines for more than 35 years. And what of Sarah? And what of Isaac? Life in the foreign culture of an ancient diaspora would be fraught with seduction and assimilation. Where was Abraham that “after these things” G-d needed to test him again?
Isaac, it is believed, was now 37. He had grown up living among the Philistines, whose culture had influenced his life and his spirituality. If Isaac was to be the inheritor of the Covenant for the Jewish people, this was now the time to be rededicated to his future mission. And it is in the Talmud that Abraham’s internal tensions are exposed:
G-d said, “Take your son.” “But I have two sons. Which should I take?” “Your only one!” “But each of them is the only son of his mother!” “Whom you love!” G-d answered. “But I love them both [said Abraham].” “I mean Isaac,” G-d replied. (Stone Chumash, p. 101)
Emotionally challenged, Abraham had not forgotten Ishmael. But what of the promise that [only] through Isaac will offspring be considered yours”? [only]This would be the last time G-d speaks to Abraham directly. Thereafter, G-d would speak to Abraham only through His angels.
And it is Rashi, the great commentator, who contends that G-d did not say “slaughter Isaac.” He did not intend for Isaac to be slaughtered. (Ibid) The intention was to bring Isaac up to rededicate him to his particularistic, covenantal mission. It was “after these things” — living in the Philistine diaspora — that it was now time to rededicate Isaac. Was Abraham still longing for Ishmael? Abraham, Abraham … The ram had always been there. G-d’s blessing – “by the angel of Hashem” – came only after the sacrifice of the ram and Isaac was safe. Diasporas can be seductive – even our own. And what of our children?
“And Abraham [alone] returned to his young men [one of whom was Ishmael], and they stood up and went together to Beer-sheba, and Abraham stayed at Beer-sheba.” (Gen. 22:19) Where was Isaac? Where was Sarah?
The binding of Isaac took place on Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem. Yet afterward, Abraham returned to Beer-sheba. Why was he living in Beer-sheba while “Sarah died in Kiriath-arba which is Hebron”? (Gen. 23:2) Hebron is south of Jerusalem, halfway between Jerusalem and Beer- sheba. Had Abraham first returned to Hebron to see Sarah on his way to Beer-sheba? Or did he purposely travel to avoid Hebron, not wanting to face Sarah? Had he forgotten G-d’s words, “Listen to Sarah”? And why were they now seemingly living apart? If Abraham was now living in Beer-sheba, couldn’t he just as easily have taken Sarah to Beer-sheba to be buried? Why Hebron? “Listen to Sarah!”
Sarah’s faith in G-d never wavered. But as G-d took Sarah, Abraham, now alone, was forced to confront the particularistic nature of his mission with the purchase of a burial plot for Sarah, bargaining with Ephron the Hittite before the children of Heth at a place called Machpelah in Hebron. It was through Sarah’s faith that Abraham now understood the particularism of his mission. Sarah’s faith in our covenantal mission never wavered. G-d had given her joy and made her laugh, and she repaid Him with her complete faith. And it was after these things that Abraham came to understand why G-d had commanded him to listen to Sarah. ” Abraham said to the children of Heth, “I am both a resident [I live among you] and a stranger among you [my G-d is not your god]; grant me the Cave of Machpelah…that I may bury my dead.” (Gen. 23:4) And the children of Heth answered Abraham, “You are a prince of G-d in our midst.” (Gen.23:5)
“Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life.” (Gen. 23:1) We may spend our lives as residents in our diaspora — the universal world — but through our covenantal blessing, we will always be strangers.
Shana Tova 5776 (09/18/15) Jack “Yehoshua” Berger * * Back issues are archived at The Times of Israel.com