We each have a “before and after moment” that tells us we cannot go back, defining our life’s narrative, our choices, our regrets.
Jewish tradition tells us that sacrificing Isaac was Abraham’s final test of faith. This could certainly be Abraham’s “before and after” moment when he showed God complete fidelity; his son, abandonment; and his wife, who had the ultimate power in their marriage.
For Isaac, the sacrifice carries a “before and after” uniqueness, too. For Sarah, the sacrifice becomes her final “before and after moment,” since, according to the Midrash, she dies upon hearing of the sacrifice. Sarah, in fact, was the sacrifice of the binding.
But the binding of Isaac was Abraham’s test, not Sarah’s or Isaac’s.
Sarah’s test was one that only a barren woman understands. Facing childlessness, her very body became a test. Abraham could see progeny through another woman, and eventually he did. Hence, Sarah’s “before and after” moment may be when she invites Hagar into her marriage. Only after much suffering, does Sarah realize that she cannot uninvite Hagar from her life. Perhaps this moment transpires when she hears Abraham has taken Isaac as a sacrifice, an inverse culmination of Sarah’s attempt at control. The fact that Isaac is still alive is incidental, beside the point. Her husband was willing to sacrifice the thing that replaced her existence from a question mark to an exclamation point. That Abraham built an ectopic marriage was painful enough, but it paled compared to his pact with her Isaac, or their God. The truth and pain of these betrayals is so unbearable — in the mind’s eye her entire life’s effort flashes by — draining it of meaning, and, like bile which must come up, she dies on the spot [Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera, 23; Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 27, Acharei Mot].
For Abraham, it seems, he can always have one without the other: God without Sarah; Sarah without Hagar; Isaac without Ishmael. Now that he “had” God through the Akeida, he is ready to “have” Sarah. Alas, it is too late, and he must bury his wife. As it turns out, the binding of Isaac was a test in sacrificing his child and his marriage, of carrying conflicting human loves. On the walk toward Mount Moriah, Abraham’s intention was to sacrifice to, but he ended up sacrificing for.
Isaac has only known his parents’ marriage as a double triangle. A child will never fully understand his parents’ context. For Isaac, though, Ishmael was a brother; Hagar, his other mother, who had poured water for his mother, Sarah, as he suckled at Sarah’s breast. Isaac was raised watching his father look at Hagar with passion and love; watching his mother look at Hagar with rage and pain. Isaac was the quagmire who caused this all. This, before the Akeida.
Isaac suffered in silence, speaking up for the first time walking the gravel to the altar: “Where is the offering for the sacrifice?” [Genesis 22:7].
Was it a redundant question, because Isaac already understood that he was to be each parent’s spiritual consummation? Sarah, to raise the child; Abraham, to sacrifice the child? Perhaps, Isaac fantasized, if he were sacrificed, there could be peace at home? Did Isaac go willingly after Abraham answered, “God will provide the sacrifice?” Did he, unknowingly, join his father in sacrificing Sarah? Life, and its tests, it turns out, are not a chessboard where each piece finds a square.
His death halted by an “almost” — Isaac suffers an existential crisis. He wanders from the Akeida at Moriah to the desert, a place of certain death. He comes upon the well that was Hagar’s place of abandonment [Gen. 24:62]. It is here — where he feels the water gushing, that Isaac is flooded by the memories of his childhood home, the playfulness of his brother, his pulling at the skirts of the two women in the kitchen — that Isaac can begin to heal his trauma.
Understanding that some fathers cannot love or provide a home unless their interior home is anchored, Isaac brings Hagar and Ishmael back to his father [Gen. 25:1,9; Bereshit Rabba 61:4]. He longs to fill his father’s unrequited love, and hopes his father will now love him as a child, erasing the abandonment of the binding. Through the love, there could be forgiveness. Through forgiveness, there is the possibility for new life.
Isaac begins to heal not when he brings Rebecca into his mother’s tent — Sarah’s lab of particularism — but, rather, when he takes Rebecca, his partner, to Moriah, the site of trauma, where he sacrificed his mother [Gen. 25:21].
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Standing by his barren wife [Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 31] whose sealed womb is a part of his unconscious work, Isaac attempts to heal his broken family: the chosen and the others, his parents’ marriage, his mother’s sacrifice. In this momentary wholeness, Rebecca’s womb opens, and Isaac will finally be able to offer his mother — and the universe — the progeny he hopes will satisfy what he was meant to be: The Covenant, the exclamation mark, monotheistic continuity. Unbeknownst to Isaac, though, the energy between his parents’ competing views of love succeed in occupying his very fiber (and, thus, his wife’s womb) so that Isaac satisfies his mother’s particularism with Jacob, and through Esau, his father’s universalism.
Hence, it is at Moriah where mothers, fathers, and brothers have always been bound to one another through covenant, hate, faith and love.
Temima Goldberg leads the Midrasha in Manhattan, a space for Israelis to re-engage their Jewish identity through text study.
Shabbat Candles: 4:23 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 23:1-25:18
Haftarah: I Kings 1-31
Havdalah: 5:32 p.m.