Parashat Chayyei Sarah – Shabbat, 14 November 2020

Texts and beliefs By Nahum Gordon 09th Nov 2020

Twelve pre-Barmitzvah boys were spending their early Wednesday evenings discussing Bible stories with me. 

We had reached the Akedah. They had plenty of great questions: 

Q1: Why did God want to test Abraham?  

Q2: Did God doubt Abraham’s faith? 

Q3: If so, what had Abraham done to make God suspicious?  

Q4: Why did God say, “Kach Na” – “Take, I pray you (i.e., please)”?        

Q5: Did God doubt that Abraham would comply?  

Q6: Why did God ask for Isaac to be sacrificed?  

Q7: Had Abraham not suffered enough, having had to banish his firstborn, Ishmael?  

Q8: Why did Abraham not remonstrate with God? He had argued for Sodom and Gomorrah to be spared.  

Q9: How much more so when it is the only son you have left? 

Q10: Why did God want Isaac to be sacrificed on a mountain three days’ journey from the family residence?            

           As the crow flies, they would have had to travel nearly 44 miles to reach their destination.  

Q11: How old was Isaac?  

Q12: Even if he had been a child, why did Isaac not struggle and object when his father bound him?  

Q13: Why did an angel, and not God, stop Abraham from slaughtering his son?  

Q14: How did Isaac feel about his father after this episode?  

Q15: How did it affect their relationship?  

Q16: Was Isaac traumatised?  

Q17: Was Abraham?  

Q18: Did Isaac descend the mountain with his father?  

Q19: Did they return home together?  

Q20: Did they ever speak to each other again?  

Q21: Come to think of it, did God and Abraham ever speak to each other again?  

Q22: Why do we read this story on the second day of Rosh HaShanah?  

I wondered if the class had missed one important line of enquiry. The boys looked surprised. I suggested that they look at the beginning of Chapter 23. They objected – that is the start of this week’s reading and a new story. I asked them to keep an open mind and persevere.  

They read verse 1. The penny dropped. They had not considered the mother’s feelings. More questions flowed: 

Q23: What impact did the Akedah have on Sarah?   

Q24: Had Abraham told her what God had commanded?  

Q25: If not, why not?  

Q26: Had he told her what had happened when he returned home?  

Q27: If not, why not?  

Q28: Had Sarah died suddenly of shock when she found out?  

Q29: If she had indeed learnt the truth, and the truth had killed her, then who told her? 

Q30: If not Abraham, then whom?  

Q31: Isaac?  

Q32: Or somebody else?  

The Torah was totally cryptic. Maybe not. They read verse 2 and were even more puzzled. More questions: 

Q33: Where had Sarah died? The text said Kiryat Arba. Otherwise known as Hebron.  

Q34: Abraham had come to bury her. Where had he been living? The class re-read Chap. 22, v. 19: Beersheva.  

Q35: And how far was Hebron from Beersheva? A web search revealed nearly 27 miles. Hardly a stroll. 

Q36: Why did Sarah die alone?  

Q37: What had she been doing in Hebron? 

The group offered various suggestions on that last question, but I asked them to focus on Akedah-related ideas. The first good answer was that Isaac had not come home and Sarah had set out to find him. That raised new issues: 

Q38: Why had Abraham not accompanied her?  

Q39: Was he also not concerned for Isaac’s welfare?  

Q40: Or was he ashamed?  

Then another penny dropped. One boy said, Abraham and Sarah had separated. I probed. He said that when Sarah found out what had happened, she had packed her bags and abandoned Abraham. There was a chorus of: 

Q41: Why? Because Abraham had been prepared to sacrifice the child that they had been waiting decades for.  

I congratulated that boy on his lateral thinking. It was pure speculation, but his interpretation was feasible. 

The group was blown away by this possibility. I reminded them that Isaac and Jacob would experience difficulties in their marriages. Rebeccah would dupe Isaac into giving Esau’s blessing to Jacob. Jacob’s first wife, Leah, would be hated, possibly by Rachel and Jacob. And those two would argue bitterly because Leah was having one child after another while Rachel remained childless. No one in the Tenach was a saint. My nominee for the closest thing to perfection was the man who was destined never to be king, Jonathan. 

The class went home thoughtful. One boy discussed Sarah’s possible divorce with his mum. They looked up their Artscroll chumash and found no corroboration. The mother e-mailed her concerns over such an unorthodox notion to the cheder and I was asked to reply. My first reaction was that I was delighted that the discussion had made such an impression on the boy and that he had been sufficiently perplexed to discuss it with his mother. Second, it was only one possible interpretation but, most importantly of all, should the class not have the right to offer sensible suggestions? Should we not be encouraging freedom of thought and expression, as long as the explanations were not flippant? 

When there are gaps in the peshat, the literal text, we look to other techniques such as midrash to assist us in our quest for meaning and understanding. Here, one of the class had read between the lines to create his own modern midrash to help him interpret the story. 

I concluded by saying that I hoped that the boys would be inspired to read as many traditional commentaries as they could access, but they should also have the confidence to test their own ideas. After all, they would soon be reaching Bar Mitzvah and they would be expected to create their own unique Dvar Torah.  

No one can claim omniscience. That is why we cherish a variety of interpretations from the rabbonim of the Talmud and Midrash to the greats of the Middle Ages (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Ramban, Abravanel and Sforno) and the important commentators of the last 150 years (Samson Raphael Hirsch, Nehama Leibowitz, Nahum Sarna, Gunther Plaut, Robert Alter, Leon Kass and Richard Elliott Friedman). All have interesting things to say. 

I salute those boys for thinking outside the box and for being willing to entertain unconventional solutions. 

PS: If you want to read other material on Sarah leaving Abraham, start with R. Perry Netter’s book, Divorce is a Mitzvah (Feb. 2003) and R. Shlomo Riskin’s ‘Sarah’s Life and Death’ (Jerusalem Post, 17/11/11). 

Nahum Gordon 

Nahum Gordon is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti and founder of Torah Chat       

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