Does Love Always Have a Happy Ending? Eitan Cooper on Abraham and Isaac in Parshat Vayera


I’m standing in Jerusalem at the dramatic overlook of the Old City and the Temple Mount – Har Habayit in Hebrew and Haram el-Sharif in Arabic.  The Gold Dome of the Rock in the distance is a Moslem Shrine built at the end of the 7th century to mark the place of the prophet Mohammed’s night journey to the site where Bet HaMikdash – the Temple, had stood before its destruction by the Romans in the 1st century. For Jews, Har Habayit – The Temple Mount, is our axis mundi, the spiritual center of the world, towards which all our prayers have been directed for thousands of years.

It is a beautiful yet enigmatic place, considered the site of the Akeda – Abraham’s binding of Isaac.

We just read the Torah Portion that begins with the commandment to Abraham: Lech Lecha. Go forth. The medieval commentator Rashi sees the emphatic “Lecha” as meaning   “for your benefit and good”. If we accept this interpretation, Abraham heard a call, and left the home of his youth on a journey to an unknown place upon a vague, though spectacular promise for the future.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, it is many years later. Abraham and Sarah live in Hebron, about 40 miles South of Jerusalem, when he is called with the same words “Lech Lecha”, but this time he is told exactly where he is going and why – to the Land of Moriah, the same spot where the Temple and Dome of the Rock would later be built, to sacrifice his son Isaac. The journey that began years earlier for Abraham’s benefit is ominously transformed, and the extra, emphatic word, “Lecha” has a different meaning. Abraham is told to look into himself in order to summon the strength for this final test.

The Israeli writer Meir Shalev notes that the key word in the story is “love”. “Take your son, your only son who you love…” and that this is the first time the word “love” appears in the Torah. We immediately learn something about love – that Abraham loves his son Isaac and not his other son, Ishmael…Here, as in life, love is frequently the source of jealousy and conflict.

Also, the form of the verb “love” in Hebrew “ahavta” begs the comparison with Ve’ahavtah – And you shall love the Lord your God, a central tenet of Jewish faith recited in the Shma Yisrael. The Torah never commands us to love our children. For most of us, that is not a challenge, but loving God is.

To return to our story, it is at the point at which I am standing that the Bible says, “And on the 3rd day he looked up and saw the place from afar”. Here Abraham leaves his two young servants, and continues on together with Isaac. They arrive at the spot. Isaac calls out “Father” – Abraham answers “Here I am, my son”. Isaac asks, “here is the fire and the wood, where is the Ram for sacrifice? Abraham answers, “God will provide the Ram for the sacrifice: my son…”.  ”My son” (“Bni” in Hebrew), is the final word spoken between them in the Torah.

The ram is sacrificed. Isaac is saved. Relief! Ours is a merciful God. Abraham survives the test and returns to the place where I’m standing and gathers his two young servants for the journey home. But wait – what’s wrong with this picture? Abraham returns to them ALONE. Isaac isn’t there. So where did Isaac go? Not with the father who was ready to kill him. And where will Abraham go from here? He returns South…but not to Hebron. Instead he goes to Beer Sheva. Why not go home to Sarah, his wife, in Hebron? Perhaps because he can’t face her with what he has done, and perhaps because she has heard and can no longer trust him. The “happy ending” leaves Abraham’s family, as well as all believers in a just God, shattered.

Sacrifice, self-discovery, love and tragedy.  As with Abraham, the lesson is that all meaningful spiritual journeys, come with a caveat: “Lech Lecha”. Shavua tov from Schechter in Jerusalem!

3 thoughts on “Does Love Always Have a Happy Ending? Eitan Cooper on Abraham and Isaac in Parshat Vayera

  1. Eitan, lovely! But you HAVE to explain to me your ending point. You left me hanging bein shamayim vaaretz. So what is lech lecha then???
    Thanks,
    Elisha

  2. What of the midrash that has Avraham respond “My son? I have two sons. My only son? Each is the only son from his mother. That I love? I LOVE THEM BOTH..” At which point Hashem must explicitly say, “Et Yitzchak” even though Avraham has known all along that it was Yitzchak who was meant. And yet even if this is taken into account, the same question of whether love has a happy ending remains. Avraham loves Yitzchak and must sacrifice him; he loves Yishmael and yet must send him away – because he loves God and Sarah, and will do whatever it takes to make each of them happy (or at least, he will make Sarah happy because Hashem tells him he must).

  3. If Avraham remembered that G’d had told him that Yitzchak would have descendants, then he must have expected that Yitzchak would somehow survive. And he changed the procedure of the sacrifice, putting Yitzchak, still alive, on an altar with a presumably unlit fire, in order to give G’d a last chance to stop him. I don’t know how that changes the bottom line, but …

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