Abraham and Homework
The Torah devotes lengthy chapters to Abraham, and in all of them, “forgot” to tell us, why did G-d choose him in the first place. After all, when we met Noah, we heard about how righteous and whole hearted he was, but when G-d called on Abraham, He just says, go, and Abraham goes.
The midrash adds flavor and color, telling us about the idol-making father and his workshop; young Abraham’s discoveries about the sun and the moon; the test with king Nimrod and the fiery furnace. And yet, the more they tell us, the more it’s obvious that they too, are deeply bothered because the Torah itself is silent.
There is one hint in this week’s parasha (Genesis 18:19): כי ידעתיו למען יצווה את בניו
Accordingly, G-d chose Abraham because He “knew Abraham will teach his children”, a verse which is good for about 10 seconds and then, just raises more questions, because if G-d “knows things” about us in the future, what’s the use of our free will and efforts to do good? Why test the poor guy with the toughest test of all at the akeida, if G-d already “knew it”? And mostly, where is the rest of the verse? It’s great that Abraham will teach his children, but what? What is it that Abraham will teach his children?? Where is there even one thing that Abraham tells Isaac to do?
Recent studies show that what we do with our kids matters less than who we are (no surprise and no pressure! :). All those hours we spend dragging them to fascinating museum exhibits and weekly story hour in the library turn out less critical in their upbringing than whether we have books in our own home.
Likewise, Abraham was not to teach his children anything in particular. It didn’t matter what exactly he was doing, whether he was fighting kings, caring for his nephew, traveling abroad, trying to resolve home front disputes, arguing with G-d, or opening his home to unknown guests. In all his doings, he was the same incredibly caring, devoted, committed man of the One G-d. Abraham was to be who he is, and by doing so, teach us how to be too.
“All that Sarah says listen to her voice” (Genesis 21:12)
As noted in last week’s comments here, G-d never speaks to Abraham without Sarah. Their partnership is so complete that when Abraham says, let’s go, she goes, and when they open their home to spiritual wanderers, she takes on supporting him and teaching the women. When they go to Egypt, he guards her and she plays along as sister; when they return and bid farewell to her (selfish!) brother, we hear of no complaints from her, and when strangers appear in their tent, they host them together.
Likewise, when she, who according to our sages, posses greater spiritual insights than he does, tells him to have a child with Hagar, he complies. Is it because the task is pleasant and easy to say yes to? Because they have no idea what they are facing? or because they do everything together for the sake of a greater mission?
We just know that he goes and does her bidding, just like she does his, without a qualm. Then comes the moment that Sarah says, ‘ok, this is not working for me anymore’, and Abraham balks. It is then that G-d has to show up in their tent.
I used to like this scene and even be a little envious; I thought that Sarah must have felt very powerful to have connections with such an ally; it would be so nice if G-d showed up in my house to resolve disputes so neatly, and in my favor!!
Then it dawned on me how weak it feels to not be able to explain yourself and communicate with our nearest and dearest, to need someone else to explain for you and intervene on your behalf; to have G-d Himself show up! At the binding, an angel was sufficient. Abraham was so attuned, so expecting someone, Something to stop him! but not here. A little tap on the shoulder is not enough, nor a quick reminder with a wink from the other side of the room, not even an ‘hey Abe, in children matters or home matters, listen to what she says; I’ll make it up for you elsewhere’, nothing, but a booming voice that says, “all she says”!
How does she feel? Does she say to herself, ‘I’m so great!’? or, ‘oh, that’s ok, I understand, must be hard for him’? or does she feel an ache that he can’t hear her? that he doesn’t trust her to know to do G-d’s bidding, to direct him to what’s right for him? For both of them?
Rav Hirsch points out that the text even says, “listen to her voice” rather than ‘her words’. Her words didn’t matter, whether they appealed to him or not; he should have trusted her judgment: “her insight are deeper than yours, for women generally have penetrating insights into human character”, says the 19th century (Orthodox!) Torah giant.
After this, Abraham and Sarah never speak again (in the Torah).
Commentators will point out to the fact that he got up “early in the morning” (Genesis 22:3) to take Isaac to the binding before Sarah woke up, so he won’t have to deal with her again. They continue and say that Satan told her that Abraham is taking her beloved baby (age 37) to be bound on the altar and her heart just gave out and she died; some say, that Satan told her than both are coming back, thus she knew her life mission failed because in order for both, Abraham and Isaac, to come back, one of them had to object G-d’s commandment.
But I don’t like either option: the image of Sarah as feeble or self-centered old lady doesn’t work for me; the image of their relationship as a couple who betrays each other, goes behind each other’s backs, sneaks out “early” – and all that after G-d already showed up once in their tent – also doesn’t work for me.
I want to believe that G-d had to intervene for the same reason He always does: to put things back in order; to help us move along the right path. Once that was done, they could continue their joint work. That work was complete at the binding, when it has become widely known that there is a true heir to their way of life, and that the heir has a potential bride (Genesis 22:20-23). At that point, their mission as a couple was complete.
This makes sense because we know Abraham to fulfill G-d’s commandments and just the same, he would keep this instruction too; but maybe it’s just me and my need to know that “happily ever after” is not fairy-tale material, but belongs to real role models of our tradition, that we too can emulate.