From Suspense to Sensitivity

Hayyei Sarah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Nov 7, 2012 / 5773 | Philosophy

Immediately after the drama of the binding of Isaac, we read Parashat Hayyei Sarah. Why the juxtaposition of these two parashiyot? Notably, at the end of the trial of Genesis 22, Isaac is absent. We read that “Abraham returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beersheba” (Gen. 22:19). What may account for Isaac’s absence at the close of the story?

Midrash Va-yikra Rabbah 20:2 suggests that Isaac returned to his mother: “She asked him, ‘Where have you been my son?’ Isaac answered, ‘My father took me and led me on a terrible journey . . . ’ At this, she said, ‘Woe upon the son of the inebriated woman! Were it not for the angel you would have been slaughtered?’ Isaac replied, ‘Yes.’ At that, she screamed six times . . . she had not finished doing this when she died.” And so, one may argue that these Torah readings are placed perfectly together: Sarah dies as a consequence of hearing the news of her son’s near sacrifice. Yet, how else may we understand the placement of these narratives?

Rav Shmuel Avidor HaCohen writes,

This parashah [Hayyei Sarah] comes, as it were, to complete the previous parashah [of Va-yera]. For one may allege that Abraham is a brutal person; he took his only son to be bound on the altar. Perhaps, they will claim, that Abraham is a hard, uncaring soul; he is a man that lives in splendid isolation with his God and knows nothing of familial love and warmth. Along comes this parashah describing the death of Sarah and the “matching” of Isaac with his mate and all of this completes the portrait of the “binding.” The deed of the “binding of Isaac” receives greater texture and appreciation as the depth of Abraham’s humanity and sensitivity is revealed. In the story of the akeidah, we know nothing of Abraham’s heart, nothing of the pangs and suffering of his soul—under which Abraham was tested as he escorted his only child “to one of the mountains [that God would show him].” Only now, when Abraham the husband and father are truly revealed to us, can we understand to what extent Abraham was a lover full of mercy and emotional depth. It is this person that journeyed to do the bidding and command of his God and Creator. (Avidor HaCohen, Likrat Shabbat [trans. from the Hebrew], 26)

Reading through the “binding of Isaac,” it is all too easy to come away with the impression of Abraham as an uncaring father wholly disconnected from family. As Rav Shmuel Avidor HaCohen sensitively explains, Parashat Hayyei Sarah rounds out the picture of Abraham. Far from being one blinded by faith and insensitivity, he is one who cares deeply. While it is regrettable that this gentle, loving portrait comes in the context of Sarah’s death, we cannot discount this caring image of the patriarch. He is a tortured and loving soul—caught between his ties to family and his commitment to God and the future of a nation. May Avidor HaCohen’s wisdom lead us to judge our ancestor in a gentler, fuller light.

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