This week we eulogize our matriarch Sarah. In this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 23:1ff), called Chaye Sarah (the life of Sarah), we read about the death of Sarah at 127 years old. Who was this woman who, as we say at every Jewish wedding, “helped build up the household of Israel”? Who was this partner with Abraham, about whom the Zohar (Jewish mystical text) says that Sarah’s agreement to go on the journey of Lech Lecha was necessary before Abraham could venture forth?
For her eulogy, let me read a passage from a page from Sarah’s (imagined) diary. Here she reflects back on what really happened behind the scenes during the incident known as the Akedah (the binding of Isaac):
I was still awake, lying quietly in our tent. Long before, Abraham had fallen asleep beside me. Ah, a moment of quiet amidst the frenetic activity of desert life. My mind began drifting, back to my favorite recollection, that of a fateful day some years back… I remembered the three men who had come to announce my imminent pregnancy with Isaac. Pregnant, after so many years? I actually laughed at them in disbelief until God reassured me it was true. God couldn’t have given me any greater happiness than all I have gleaned from my Isaac.
And then it happened. Abraham began stirring, and with a sudden jerk, he sat up and called out, “Hineni, Here I am.” He was talking to God. He walked out to stand beneath the stars near the camp’s altar. So I leaned forward trying to share in this latest revelation, as I had with so many others.
At first what I heard made little sense. Though I could only hear Abraham’s responses, I understood that God requested something involving our son Isaac. Abraham’s usually strong, even voice was filled with shock, then anger, and finally acceptance. I was intrigued, and sat silently to hear more.
I started listening more intently. For a moment I thought I heard the word “sacrifice,” but I had to be mistaken. As Abraham spoke again, his words came as a choking sob from deep within his throat. My body started to shake with horror. This was a nightmare! The Eternal One could not have requested that my husband sacrifice our only son Isaac. I was simultaneously incensed and terrified. God had given us Isaac. Why would God take this special gift from me now? And without even speaking to me directly! No, I must have misunderstood.
I pretended to be asleep as my husband returned to the tent. Through cracked eyelids, I watched him. I had never seen him so overcome with sadness, not even when we were commanded to leave the land where we were born, or on that awful day Sodom was destroyed. But I could see in his face that I had not been mistaken. He truly believed that God wanted him to sacrifice our son.
I wanted to hold Abraham in my arms, to cry with him, to help him rethink what God had said, to convince him to speak to God, but his eyes were distant and I was scared. I had been excluded from hearing God’s voice and for the first time I felt powerless to involve myself in what had passed between Abraham and God. For a moment I wondered if this strange command was my punishment. Had I done something so evil to deserve the loss of my only son? One thing I knew. I would give up my life before I would let Isaac be harmed.
Lying in the dark, I was so tied up in knots that I could not cry. Abraham did not even try to wake me. Instead he had fallen into a restless sleep, as if struggling with an unseen demon. I could not bear to lie beside him any longer. I needed to escape. I needed to think. I could not believe that this God of goodness who created the world and who had given us Isaac would now take him away.
I started walking aimlessly, until I approached the camp’s altar where Abraham’s special knife leaned against one side. I began to tremble as I thought of the knife sliding against Isaac’s throat. I remembered all the sacrifices I had witnessed over the years, sacrifices that served as a sign of our commitment to and appreciation for God’s protection and guidance. Could God be looking for that kind of sign? Why would God suddenly seek reassurance of our commitment? Why now, and why involve Isaac? All these questions suddenly merged into one: if Abraham was so committed to obeying God’s command, did my concern matter at all?
I asked myself, “What did God expect of us?” I remembered God’s promise that our offspring would inherit this land and become a great nation. It had been many years since I thought about that promise. I had always assumed that Isaac and his future bride would follow in our footsteps as the heads of tribe, but I never considered just how he would inherit our commitment to serving God. Abraham and I were not getting any younger. If we were to pass on the Covenant to our son, it would have to be soon. Perhaps God’s discussion with Abraham was the sign that the time had arrived.
My heart began to pound. The future of our values depended upon our actions now. What better way for us to pass on that commitment than for the three of us to journey together, to meet God on a mountaintop, and to begin the transition of leadership to the next generation! God commanded a sacrifice so that Abraham and I could prepare ourselves to relinquish the leadership of the people, and Isaac could begin to assume this sacred duty. Abraham misunderstood God’s message. God did not want Isaac as a sacrifice. A sacrifice of the finest of our flocks was called for, not of our children. I now knew what I had to do. I had to prevent a nonsensical death, and ensure the perpetuation of our covenant with God.
I now understood that God wanted me to follow Abraham and Isaac to help them. Yet I wanted to allow Abraham the chance to figure out God’s intentions for himself. So I went back to bed and waited patiently for morning.
Abraham got up early, gathered his supplies, and announced that he was going off with Isaac. He did not explain why. As soon as he was out of sight, I prepared for my own journey. With my own supplies, I also took along the finest ram in camp. I was careful to stay out of sight on the opposite the side of the mountains. On the third day, before they woke up, I knew my time had come. I hiked up the side of the mountain, ram in tow. When I could no longer catch my breath, I released the ram and shooed it up the slope. As I watched it run up to the heights where I knew Abraham and Isaac would find it, I relaxed. Content at having ensured the survival of our people, I lay down in the grass and drifted into a peaceful sleep.
[Adapted by Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November. This midrash was adapted from a modern midrash written by Faith Rogow, which appears in Taking the Fruit, Modern Women’s Tales of the Bible (San Diego: Woman’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education, pp. 51-56). It answers two questions: Where was Sarah during the Akedah? AND Where did the ram – sacrificed in Isaac’s place – come from?