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Torah Sparks

November 7, 2009 – 20 Heshvan 5770

Annual (Gen. 18:1-22:24): (Etz Hayim, p. 99; Hertz p. 63)
Triennial (Gen. 21:1-22:24): (Etz Hayim, p. 112; Hertz p. 71)
Haftarah: (Etz Hayim, p. 124; Hertz p. 76)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce T. Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

Torah Portion Summary

Abraham welcomes three wayfarers to his tent, unaware that they are angels. They tell him that Sarah will bear a son. Sarah overhears and laughs in disbelief. God tells Abraham that He has decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham challenges God – “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” Abraham bargains with God, Who promises not to destroy the cities if 50, 45, 40, 30, 20, even 10 righteous people can be found there.

Two angels arrive in Sodom and Lot greets them. The angels urge Lot and his family to flee. They leave, but Lot’s wife disobeys the instruction not to look back and is turned into a pillar of salt. After the destruction, Lot’s daughters, believing that no one else has been left alive, trick their father into incestuous unions and each bears a son, the founders of the nations of Ammon and Moab.

Abraham and Sarah travel to Gerar, where Abraham tells its king, Abimelech, that Sarah is his sister. God again protects Sarah and Abimelech sends them away from his kingdom.

God’s promise is fulfilled, and Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, is born. At Sarah’s insistence, Abraham sends Ishmael and his mother Hagar away. God promises Hagar that Ishmael will become a great nation. Abraham and Abimelech make a covenant of peace at Be’er-sheva. The parasha concludes with the Akedah, the story of the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac.

1. A Mother’s Fears

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing [m’tzaheik]. She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:9-10)

  1. There is no doubt that had Ishmael remained in Abraham’s home together with Isaac, he would not have been as wild. On the other hand, Ishmael’s presence would have been harmful to Isaac. Thus Sarah, who, our sages tell us, was greater in prophecy than Abraham, decided that the danger to Isaac was greater, and there was reason to fear that before Isaac influenced Ishmael to improve his behavior, Ishmael would influence Isaac to become worse. And indeed, God said to Abraham, “Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says.” (Hafetz Hayim (Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen), 1835-1933, Poland)
  2. Rabbi Akiba taught: “Playing” refers to nothing else but sexual immorality, as in the verse (Genesis 39:17), “The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to dally [l’tzahek] with me.” This teaches that Sarah saw Ishmael ravish maidens, seduce married women, and dishonor them. Rabbi Ishmael taught: This term “playing” refers to idolatry, as in the verse (Shemot 32:6), “and then rose to dance [l’tzaheik].” This teaches that Sarah saw Ishmael build altars, catch locusts, and sacrifice them. Rabbi Eleazar said: The term “playing” refers to bloodshed, as in the verse (II Samuel 2:14), “Let the young men come forward and sport [ve’sahaku] before us.” Rabbi Azariah said in Rabbi Levi’s name: Ishmael said to Isaac, “Let us go and see our portion in the field;” then Ishmael would take a bow and arrows and shoot them in Isaac’s direction, while pretending to be playing. (Bereisheit Rabbah 53:11)
  3. “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.” (21:17) Rabbi Simon said: The ministering angels hastened to indict him, exclaiming, “Sovereign of the Universe! Will you bring up a well for one who will one day slaughter Your children?” “What is he now?” He demanded. “Righteous,” was the answer. “I judge a person only as he is at the moment,” said He. (Bereisheit Rabbah 53:14)

Sparks for Discussion

Why does Sarah insist that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away? Does she fear Ishmael’s influence on his younger brother? Is she jealous of Abraham’s relationship with Hagar? Is she concerned about Isaac’s inheritance? Why do the rabbis of Bereisheit Rabbah accuse Ishmael of Judaism’s three greatest sins? God tells Abraham to do what Sarah tells him – does that mean that Sarah was right?

Rabbi Simon teaches that even though God knows what a person will do in the future, God judges people based on where they are now. Should or can human beings aspire to this standard? Our legal system sometimes punishes people based on what they might do in the future – for example, three-strikes laws, sex offender registries, restraining orders. Is this just?

2. Pass/Fail

Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And he said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”

  1. The nature of this trial calls for explanation, since there is no doubt that the Almighty does not try a person in order to prove to Himself whether he is capable of withstanding the trial, since God is all-knowing and is in no doubt about anything. (Rabbenu Nissim ben Reuven Gerondi, d. 1380, Spain)
  2. When God told Abraham “Take your son,” Satan came to him and said to him: “See, Abraham, what you are about to do. There are only two Jews in the world, you and Isaac. As far as Ishmael is concerned, he is far from Judaism. Now, make a simple calculation: you and Sarah are old, and will not have any other children. If you sacrifice your son Isaac, there will no longer be any Jews in the world!”

    But Abraham refused to accept this and answered: “I have to do that which God commands me. As He told me to sacrifice my son, I have to do so regardless. All of these calculations that there will not be any more Jews in the world are irrelevant to me. It is God’s world, and it is not my job to supply Jews to the world.”

    This was the greatness of Abraham: no calculations, no logic, moved him from the proper path. (Rabbi Yitzhak of Worka, 1779-1848, Poland)
  3. Since this trial was narrated in the Torah as testimony of the living God, it is as if the trial took place in the presence of every Jew, past, present, and future. No one has failed to witness, through this medium, the greatness of this trial and the steadfastness of Abraham’s faith, which became indelibly fixed in the hearts of all members of the human race. (Akedat Yitzhak (Rabbi Isaac Arama), 1420- 1494, Spain)
  4. The major point of the test was that Abraham had always fought against the idolaters who used to sacrifice their children to their gods. He had preached to them that there is one God in Heaven, who does not need such sacrifices. Yet suddenly God demanded that he sacrifice his only son, which was the practice against which he had fought his entire life. Yet in spite of this, Abraham had no hesitation and passed the test by going to sacrifice Isaac. (Peninei Torah, cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)
  5. “And offer him.” God did not say to him, “Slaughter him,” because the Holy Blessed One did not desire to slaughter him, but only to bring him up to the mountain in order to prepare him as a burnt offering. But after Abraham had brought him up, He said to him, “Take him down.” (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  6. If the career of Abraham is a saga of “God in search of man,” it is no less a saga of man in search of God. Indeed, no less than God learns about Abraham through their encounters, Abraham learns about God, the God whom others did not hear, of whom there was no written record, whom he could know only through personal experience. In each of the trials, God no less than Abraham was being judged... Now, that God, who had promised that Isaac would be the key to the future, was reneging on His commitment. God was apparently no different from other gods of the day, heedless of human life, an arbitrary executioner... Abraham could not plead for Isaac, because he could not risk God’s granting him a special favor. Abraham had to know whether God respected human life in general, whether He protected children, all children, or devoured them. To find out, he had to test God, tempting Him by complying with His command. (Michael Brown, “Knight of Faith or Man of Doubt? A Contemporary Reading of the Akedah,” Conservative Judaism, Summer 1982)

Sparks for Discussion

There is no episode in the Torah that raises more questions than the Akedah. Why did God have to test Abraham? Why subject Isaac to this trauma? Why was Abraham silent, making no argument to spare his son’s life? Where was Sarah in all of this? Why does the Torah tell us that after the Akedah Abraham returned to Be’er-Sheba, with no mention of what happened to Isaac? What are we supposed to learn from this that applies to our lives today? What was the test of the Akedah? Did Abraham pass?

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