So child sacrifice seems to be the theme of this week’s parsha. Lot offers to sacrifice his two daughters to the violent and perverted men of Sodom (Bereishit, 19:8). Avraham sacrifices his son Yishmael, sending him away because he’s a bad influence on Yitzchak (Bereishit, 21:14). Hagar sacrifices Yishmael, abandoning him in his illness so she will not see him die (Bereishit, 21:16). And, of course, Avraham shows that he is willing to literally sacrifice his son Yitzchak, slaughter him as an offering to Hashem (Bereishit, 22:10). This thread that runs throughout the parsha is more than slightly problematic. What on earth is the Torah trying to teach us about the relationship between parents and their children?
At the beginning of Parshat Noach, Rashi comments that the good deeds of a tzadik are his “main” children (Rashi, Bereishit, 6:9). The Gur Aryeh, troubled by what judgement is being made between good deeds and children offers two explanations. The second is that a person’s good deeds become an intrinsic part of them, whereas children are external to and independent from their parents. This is what some of the parent’s in our parsha seem to have forgotten.
Lot offers his two daughters to the men of Sodom, forgetting that they are independent people and not his property. This is clearly shown in the pesukim. Lot tells the men banging on his door “to me there are two daughters” (Bereishit, 19:8), emphasising his possession of them. But these daughters later prove their independence from their father. Convinced that the world around them is being destroyed and that they are the only three people left alive, his daughters feel they have no choice but to repopulate the world with their father (Bereishit, 19:31-32). In this troubling and ironic narrative, the two daughters who are offered up by their father to be involved in arayot most strongly show independence from their father when they engage in arayot with him.
The pesukim show this too when Hagar retreats from her son because she cannot bear to see him die (Bereishit, 21:16). In her despair, Hagar does not seem to realise that Yishmael is an autonomous person, who is able to act. Yishmael himself, abandoned by his mother, asks G-d to heal him. And Hashem hears Yishmael, judges him as an independent person and saves him (Bereishit, 21:17 and Rashi). Yishmael is not reliant on his mother’s prayers; he is external to her, he has agency and is able to act for himself.
What, then, of Avraham? He sacrifices, in different ways, both of his sons. Yet, when he does so, it is on the command of G-d. G-d tells Avraham to send Yishmael away (Bereishit, 21:12). G-d tells Avraham to offer up Yitzchak (Bereishit, 22:2). Let us return to the Gur Aryeh on Parshat Noach. His other interpretation of Rashi’s words is that a person’s good deeds are completely his. In contrast, children are created by Hashem. Avraham does not want to banish Yishmael (Bereishit, 21:11). Hashem knows the command to slaughter Yitzchak will cause Avraham bewilderment (Rashi, Bereishit, 22:2) – Yitzchak is supposed to be the fulfilment of all the blessings he has been promised. Yet in both cases Avraham is willing to sacrifice his sons. Not because he believes they are his property, but because he knows they are G-d’s. His sacrifices are the ultimate recognition of Hashem as Creator.
All people are G-d’s creations. We are not called upon to show we recognise this with the sacrifice of a child. But we are required to do it in other ways – the Torah is filled with laws regarding how we treat other people. We must judge them favourably. We must not speak lashon hara. We must do chesed. We must love our fellows. At a time when there are so many divides and arguments within families and communities, we must be even more conscious of these mitzvot bein adam le’chaveiro and we must ensure that we treat all people with respect, compassion and humanity.