by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – October 28, 2010
The Torah portion Chaye Sara begins with informing us of the passing of our first matriarch, Sarah. “Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years, the years of Sarah’s life. Sarah died in Kiryat Arba which is Hebron … and Abraham came to Sarah and to bewail her” (Bereshit 23:1-2). After this, Abraham sees to burying his righteous wife Sarah, at great expense, and ensuring an appropriate wife for his beloved son Isaac, sending his trusted servant to the farthest reaches of humanity, so to speak, for this purpose.
Commenting upon the aforementioned verses, the great exegete Rashi, based on Tanchuma (end of Vayera) and Pirkei d’R’ Eliezer 32, notes that “Sarah’s death is juxtaposed with the binding of Isaac because through the news of the binding, that her son was readied for slaughter and was nearly slaughtered, her soul flew from her and she died.” Sarah’s reaction, as a mother, with the prospect of losing her only son, helpless to do anything, is quite understandable. But, what about Abraham? Abraham, whose tent is open to every traveler, providing him with rest and food and drink, who seems to try to find a reason to save even the most vile society of Sodom and Gomorrah, when it comes to his own son, seems to give up without a fight! Was Abraham so busy caring for everyone else that he became desensitized to his own family? A closer look at what transpires in Abraham’s life, though, demonstrates the opposite.
First of all, the thought that Abraham cares more for others than his own family, upon reading the entire story of Abraham, as presented in the Torah, is patently false. In fact, Abraham is perturbed at his own wife Sarah for even suggesting banishment of his son Yishmael. He comes to his son’s defense immediately. It is only when G-d Himself steps in and defends Sarah’s position that Abraham relents (Bereshit 21:9-12). In this episode, Abraham clearly shows that he is far from disinterested in his own family, let alone his own son. And if Abraham is bothered at harm that would come to Yishmael, a son borne to him by Sarah’s maid, would he not be concerned for Isaac, a son that he had with Sarah herself? Moreover, when enjoining him to sacrifice his son Isaac, G-d ensures that Abraham’s sympathy is maximized. “And He said, ‘Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac and go to the land of Moriah, and bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you’” (Bereshit 22:2). Before doing this, G-d emphasizes to Abraham that we are dealing with his son, his only son with Sarah, his son that he loves. If he were perturbed at the thought of harm coming to his son Yishmael, would he not be perturbed that harm is about to come to his son Isaac, especially after G-d stresses Abraham’s feelings towards him? Even a less dramatic situation would tug at the heart-strings, so to speak, of even the least loving father – let alone someone of the caring nature of Abraham?
Then, why does Abraham not voice any modicum of protest – unlike when he hears of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? The answer lies in the very question. G-d demonstrated to Abraham, when destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, that He by no means is quick to do harm, even to the most vile society if He were to find only a miniscule degree of righteousness. If he were to find only ten righteous individuals amongst the thousands that must have resided in this region, He would forgo His decree. It was to clarify this point that Abraham raised his protest, and G-d allayed his fears. Is Abraham, then, to think that G-d, Who just demonstrated His recognition of even the most miniscule degree of righteousness amongst the greatest degree of evil, would not recognize the enormous degree of righteousness amongst the total absence of evil in his son, Isaac? Certainly, Abraham understood that this decree of G-d has no relation to good and evil. Obviously, from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we see that G-d greatly values even the smallest amount of righteousness. Abraham already demonstrated that. Therefore, there is nothing more to question. Abraham understands that some other principle is playing a role here, a principle that is beyond good and evil, and whether he understands it or not, he must obey. Abraham recognizes the overriding principle, as mentioned in a previous essay, of “one ought to do the will of G-d” Who is omni-benevolent and Whose wisdom is superior to ours, as was apparent to him after experiencing His benevolence and essence.
All the more is the above point accentuated by the form that the messages to Abraham are imparted. When it comes to instructing him to sacrifice Isaac, G-d Himself addresses Abraham, whereas, when He repeals the decree, an angel addresses Abraham. As cited from Devash HaSadeh in Ma’ayana Shel Torah, this teaches us that a decree that is detrimental to someone can only be accepted from G-d, for only G-d’s superior authority could be accepted in such a situation so difficult to digest, whereas a decree clearly to one’s benefit is sufficient to hear even from an angel.
Finally, once Abraham has met his most difficult challenge, unequivocally testing his stalwart and unwavering character with regards to G-d and his intelligence as to understanding G-d’s supreme authority, G-d allows Abraham to tend to outstanding matters and live out his years in happiness. Abraham tends to the burial of his life-long partner and to the marriage of his beloved son. No more intervention from G-d is necessary. Abraham has reached the pinnacle of devotion. He has met all possible challenges. Abraham has undergone the greatest test of his character and intelligence and come out glowing. Were we able to say this about all of us today, the world would be a very different one. May we all come to a fraction of Abraham’s righteousness and understanding of G-d. What a wonderful world it could be!