One major personality of the first Hebrew family, Mother Sarah, seems strangely absent in the awesome and traumatic story of the akedah about which we read last week. After all, Isaac was not really the “only son” of Abraham – but Isaac certainly was the only son of Sarah!
And Sarah had been very aggressive in protecting Isaac, even to the point of pushing Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael when she caught Ishmael “mocking” Isaac. Could it be that father, son and two servants made the requisite preparations for their fateful desert journey from Be’er Sheva to Mount Moriah and left the tent “early in the morning” without awakening Sarah or rousing her suspicions?! Is it logical that Abraham would set out for the akedah without first explaining to his wife and mission partner what God had demanded that he do to Isaac, especially after God had told him –in the context of protecting Isaac from Ishmael- “Whatever Sarah says to you, hearken to her voice…”?!
Are we really to assume that Sarah’s only connection to the akeda took place after the fact? Rashi reports in this week’s reading, that “the death of Sarah is linked to the binding of Isaac since (Satan) informed the (Matriarch) that her son was being prepared for slaughter: her soul then flew away from her and she died”. (Rashi citing Tanhuma at end of Vayera –Gen 23:2) Was Sarah truly absent from the akedah story?
Let us begin to answer our query with another difficult textual problem. Our portion opens, “And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba which is Hebron in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep over her”. (Gen 23:2). According to this chronology, Sarah’s death took place at the precise time that the akedah was happening: Abraham and Isaac left the familial tent in Be’er Sheva to go to the akeda – and Abraham returned to Be’er Sheva after the akedah (Gen 22:19). What was Sarah doing in Kiryat Arba, where she apparently died?! The Ramban asks this question in his commentary (ad loc), and concludes that “Sarah must not have died at the time (of the akedah) since Abraham would not have been living in Be’er Sheba while Sarah was living in Hebron.” But how do we explain the story according to the Midrash? Even according to the simple reading of the text, it would seem that Abraham returns from the akedah to the familial tent in Be’er Sheva, and then – without the Bible informing us of a familial “move” – we are told that “Sarah died in Hebron, and Abraham ‘came’ to eulogize her and weep over her.” Even if we do not posit Sarah’s death immediately following the akedah, Abraham seems to be living in Be’er Sheba and Sarah seems to have died in Hebron?!
We have previously attempted to demonstrate that according to a not insignificant chorus of sages, Abraham did not properly understand the original command of God. A powerful passage in the Talmud (B.T. Taanit 4a) cites a verse from the Prophet Jeremiah (19:5) to suggest that “it had never even crossed God’s mind” to order Abraham to sacrifice his son, and this view is confirmed by Rashi, “God never said that (Abraham) should slaughter (Isaac), since the Holy One Blessed be He only asked that he bring him up to the mountain, dedicate him and bring him down”. (Rashi on Gen 22:2)
I would add to this the fascinating fact that Abraham survived Sarah by 38 years, but throughout this period there were no real conversations between God and Abraham and no significant incident involving the Patriarch about which our sages could comment, “the deeds of the forefathers are a foreshadowing of what will occur to the descendants”. The Sefat Emet (1847-1905) goes so far as to say that when the verse describing Abraham’s journey to the Akeda says, “Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place from afar” (22:4), “the place” refers to God, since Abraham had misunderstood God’s true intent.
Given all of the above, even if Abraham had attempted to conceal God’s command from Sarah, she could not possibly have been unaware of the preparations for the journey and the anxiety–filled exit from the tent on the morning in which they set out. I would posit that a confrontation between Sarah and Abraham took place, in which Sarah vigorously disagreed with Abraham’s interpretation of God’s words and did everything in her power to prevent a sacrifice. In desperation, she told Abraham that if he set forth with the slaughtering knife, she would not be there upon his return. He left for the akeda, and she left for Kiriat Arba. Had she not died of grief at this point in time and had she lived to see her position vindicated by the angel who stayed Abraham’s hand from slaughtering Isaac, she certainly would have returned to the family tent in Be’er Sheva. Unfortunately, the angel was too late for Sarah and as a result, Abraham had to travel to Kiriat Arba to eulogize his beloved wife and life partner who understood God’s will better than he did.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.