The Torah reading for this week is packed with famous stories. Abraham and Sarah and their generous hospitality; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the birth if Isaac, the expulsion of Yishma’el; the binding of Isaac. And somewhere near the end, we are introduced to a most important word for the very first time. That word is love.
Until now, we did almost everything: the world was created; we lived in the Garden of Eden and we were kicked out of the Garden of Eden; we saved our family and many animals; we developed languages and tools and farming and music; we traveled back and forth; we had children and children and children. But – no love.
Love appears in one of the most horrific stories of the Bible. I say “one of” and not “the most” because though the beginning is bad, the ending is good. Which is not what I can say about many other stories that start lovely and end terribly. But is hopefully what I can say about love.
That word, “love” appears first when G-d instructs Abraham to take Isaac and bring him up as an offering: “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and… offer him up as an offering on one of the mountains that I will tell you… (Genesis 22:2). And my question is, what is the added value in saying here “whom you love”? G-d could have just said, ‘take Isaac’!
The midrash (ancient commentary) points to the build up in the verse: “take your son” – Abraham might say, which one? I have two! “your only son” – but each one is the only one from his mother, “whom you love” – but I love both of them! Then G-d names him: Isaac. Boom. Now he knows.
Maybe, because there are many ways to identify a child, and I want to know, what is love doing here; what is love to Abraham; how did he know what the word means.
I’ll back up for a moment:
Abraham is the one who follows G-d to a land he knows not. He’s the guy who steps outside his tent for a one on one casual, theological bargain with G-d. And G-d listens. G-d is also the one who interferes in Abraham’s marital relationship, siding with Sarah, not with Abraham, “his favorite” and trusted servant; and He is the one who tells him to send Yishma’el away, which we can explain in many ways but must have been very painful for Abraham.
And after all this, the word love appears. As if Abraham already knows it. How would he??
I would like to suggest that Abraham learns about love from G-d. Because love is the closest thing to G-d on this earth. Whether towards children, parents or one’s partner, it is what stretches us beyond our limits, beyond anything we’ve ever imagined. When we’ve “offered up” everything, it will ask for one more “little something”. It will take something – and someone – that makes sense, and turn them all completely upside down, down to destruction. Then it will take a gloomy day, and make it sunny and bright and most beautiful ever. In short, it will make sure that when we think we know how it all works here, we’ll be reminded, we don’t know everything. It will force us to stay open to the unexpected and unknown. In short, it will put us face to face with what’s beyond us, with what is Godly in the world.
After the binding, Sarah dies and G-d never speaks to Abraham again. Abraham still lives a long life, has more children and much wealth but the rest doesn’t matter anymore and much of it not noted. Some will say, he past all tests. Others will say he failed. Today I think, he learned what love is. That is what life is all about.