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Parashat Vayera, 5781

By Rabbi Peretz Rodman

Fifty years ago, the Israeli novelist Hanoch Bartov published a novel whose title has always intrigued me: Whose Little Boy Are You? That question comes to mind as we read the story of the birth of Isaac (Genesis 21). A careful look at the phrasing in each verse reveals a household blighted by some sort of chill between the parents, some alienation, or at least a lack of communication, between Abraham and Sarah. 

First, we are told: ‘The LORD took note of Sarah as He had promised, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken.’ The sentence is constructed as a one-line poem, symmetrically balanced, telling us almost the same message in each of its two half-lines, but, as we go from the first to the second, moving the action forward enough to keep our interest. The LORD took note, the LORD took action. Not only is the subject named each time—‘the LORD’—but no pronoun is substituted for the beneficiary’s name either: ‘Sarah’ appears twice, emphasizing that it is she who receives divine grace in this story. She becomes the active subject of the next verse: ‘Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age […]’. She is the active one; Abraham is a passive beneficiary. 

Suddenly, in v. 3, Abraham is the active parent, and Sarah is relegated to a dependent clause: ‘Abraham gave his newborn son, whom Sarah had borne him, the name of Isaac [yitzḥak].’ He (and here it is he, not she) who names is he who owns or controls—controls the situation, at least, if not the person named. Isaac is called ‘his son’ here, and in v. 4 as well: ‘And when his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God had commanded him. It is the father who received a divine command, the father who performs the rite. The child is ‘his son’ both here and in v. 5: ‘Now Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.’ The passive voice at the end circumvents any mention of Sarah’s name, even in a prepositional phrase such as ‘by Sarah’. 

Lest we think that the role of “lead parent” has been transferred permanently, v. 6 swings back to Sarah’s perspective, as though in a tug-of-war. Perhaps explaining the name the boy was given by his father, ‘Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter [tzeḥok], everyone who hears will laugh [yitz’ḥak] with me”.’ Or perhaps: “… laugh at me.” Either way, the boy’s name, in this view, is about her, not about Abraham. As though to reassert her role in the birth in all its miraculousness, she recites a poem, one in which her place is central and her husband’s is peripheral and even derided: 

Who would have said to Abraham 

That Sarah would suckle children? 

Yet I have borne a son in his old age. 

The boy himself becomes central to the syntax—‘The child grew up and was weaned’—but only for a moment is he at center stage. The narrator has Abraham reassert control: ‘… and Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.’ The nursing mother from whose body the boy is now distanced is nowhere to be seen in that verse. 

In the subsequent scenes, Sarah complains bitterly about the other son in the house, Ishmael, legally her own but actually borne by her servant Hagar. The deep-seated antagonism between Hagar and Sarah (see ch. 16) now becomes an “it’s her—or me” moment, and Abraham, at God’s behest, accedes to Sarah’s demand and sends both Hagar and Ishmael away to face an uncertain fate. That might calm Sarah for a moment, but the rupture in the relationship between Abraham and Sarah has hardly been healed. The episode that follows, the near-slaughter of Isaac by Abraham, certainly does nothing to repair that fractured relationship. 

Many of the laws in the Torah seem to be correctives to dysfunctions in the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. For example, one is not to grant the firstborn’s share of inheritance to the eldest son of one’s favored wife over one’s true firstborn born to a less-favored wife (Deut. 21:15–17). That prevents the sort of parental favoritism so common in Genesis, from Abraham’s bias toward Isaac through Jacob’s reversal of the roles of Ephraim and Menasheh. 

The rift between Abraham and Sarah in their later years, however, is not of a kind that can be ameliorated by legislation. Those two, after all the decades of childlessness, of isolation from the society around them (because Canaanite culture was so corrupt), of distance from their families of origin—whatever the factors were, they had ceased to speak or to listen to each other with any empathy. Even the birth of the shared child they had longed for, when both were very advanced in years, did not bring them reconciliation. They need not have continued to live like that, but they clearly lacked the skills, and perhaps the will, to make the changes that might have brought them back together. 

Reading this sad tale, may we all resolve to do better than did our ancestors at listening with openness and speaking with gentle honesty to one another. 

Rabbi Peretz Rodman is Av Bet Din of Israel’s Masorti Bet Din. He lives in Jerusalem. 

Posted on 5 November 2020