- Parshat Ḥayei Sarah shows a transition of leadership from Avraham to Yitzḥak.
- But how was Yitzḥak able to get out from under Avraham’s towering shadow and win over Yishmael to recognize his place as their father’s heir?
Although it might superficially seem as if the names of each parsha – each weekly Torah portion – are just mechanically extracted from the first few words of their respective parshiot, the name of each parsha actually expresses the essence of what that weekly section of our Torah is all about.
Parshat Ḥayei Sarah, which literally means the “life of Sarah” might at first seem like a strange name for this week’s parsha, especially given the fact that it begins with Sarah’s death and burial but then moves on to other topics. But if we look at the three major stories that take place in this parsha, we can see manifestations of Sarah’s legacy having a major influence on events.
Everything that takes place in Parshat Ḥayei Sarah should be understood as the direct result of Sarah’s lasting influence over Avraham and as crucial victories she won after her death, through which she was able to guide her family in the direction that she understood to be best for its development into the nation of Israel.
The first of Sarah’s victories is that Hebron essentially became the main location of her family’s future development.
Avraham had until Sarah’s death been more inclined to live in B’er-Sheva, as a spiritual leader within the Philistine kingdom ruled by Avimelekh. Avraham wasn’t especially interested in dealing with matters of statecraft but wanted to spread his teachings of ethical panentheism and bring people close to the Creator. That’s what excited him. That’s where he felt his soul being fully expressed. So it’s understandable that he might have preferred a situation in which powerful kingdoms adopted his spiritual teachings.
This was essentially the deal that Avimelekh offered him. The Philistine king saw Avraham as an important figure and basically gave him an honored place as a spiritual leader within his realm of influence. But this required Avraham to accept the reality of Avimelekh having political sovereignty over parts of the Land of Israel.
Sarah rejected this orientation because she understood that the Hebrews could only fulfill our historic mission as a sovereign nation that deals with and applies our spiritual values to all areas of national life. For this reason, Sarah believed that the family should live in Hebron, which required Avraham to hold and manage sovereign territory.
The family had previously lived in Hebron but had moved after the destruction of S’dom – which had been directly east of Hebron – created a significant decrease in travelers for Avraham to engage and teach. So through her death in Hebron, Sarah forced Avraham to return the family back to that city.
Sarah’s second major victory was Avraham’s decision to find a Hebrew wife for Yitzḥak from among their relatives. Because Avraham inclined towards universalism, and had previously regarded his marriage to the Egyptian princess Hagar as a way to influence Egyptian civilization with his teachings, he might have seen value in Yitzḥak marrying a woman from another dominant nation. But Sarah’s nationalist orientation ultimately won out and, following her lead, Avraham took steps to ensure that his successor would only marry an ethnic Hebrew. The story of Eliezer traveling to Aram to find a bride for Yitzḥak, which is the central focus of this parsha, is the result of Avraham fully adopting Sarah’s path.
And Sarah’s third victory can be found at the end of the parsha, in the story of Avraham’s children from Ketura – who our Sages teach us to have actually been Hagar. While it was proper for Avraham to take another wife for himself after Sarah’s death, it’s also clear that Avraham understood by this point that only Sarah’s son Yitzḥak could be his heir and successor. We see this expressed in Avraham’s decision to send Ketura’s sons to the east. He gave them gifts, but didn’t make them his heirs. Avraham at this point seemed able to utilize Sarah’s attribute of g’vura in order to create appropriate boundaries for the expression of his ḥesed.
In any case, even after Sarah left our world, her opinions and desires continued to influence Avraham’s decisions, which is of course a very powerful testament to the relationship they shared.
This parsha also features a transition from the leadership of Avraham to the leadership of Yitzḥak in building the family and future nation of Israel. We see this very clearly in the fact that when the servant Eliezer returned from his mission, he reported not to Avraham who had sent him but to Yitzḥak. Avraham had to a certain extent retired. And Yitzḥak was now essentially head of the family.
Yitzḥak’s position as leader and public face of the Hebrew message to mankind likely came with challenges. Avraham had essentially been a self-made man who underwent a major personal transformation through overcoming challenges and an incredible journey that achieved an exclusive Covenant with the Creator.
But Yitzḥak was born into the Covenant. He didn’t achieve it. And it’s often very challenging to be the son and successor of a great man – to always live in the shadow of a towering figure and to feel a constant need to measure up. It’s even challenging to hold onto past achievements, let alone augment them with new ones.
Yitzḥak overcame these challenges partially by being so different from his father. Unlike his older brother Yishmael, who was very much a copy of Avraham and also exemplified the trait of ḥesed, Yitzḥak was more like Sarah and, like Sarah, he exemplified the attribute of g’vura.
The differences between Avraham as ḥesed and Yitzḥak as g’vura can be seen in the fact that Avraham was a leader his entire life, while Yitzḥak had for the most part been led. Avraham was constantly on offense. He took the initiative to create the world he wanted to see. But Yitzḥak was always very much on defense.
Ḥesed seeks to spread out and expand. Therefore it’s proactive and constantly advances. G’vura, by contrast, seeks to maintain the status quo. It’s conservative by nature and doesn’t initiate anything new but only reacts to what already exists.
Yitzḥak’s entire personal mission seems to have been the preservation of his father’s teachings and their transmission to the next generation. He gave these teachings boundaries for proper expression but he didn’t really add to them.
It’s also important to note that Yitzḥak used this attribute of g’vura to properly channel his father’s message of ḥesed. Following the death of his mother Sarah, Yitzḥak travels to B’er Laḥai Ro’i to bring back Hagar to remarry Avraham. Yitzḥak had put the issues between his mother and Hagar aside because he understood that his father shouldn’t be unmarried. This is what likely caused Yishmael to finally recognize Yitzḥak as the rightful successor to their father Avraham.
It’s also important to note that when a Biblical figure is granted a new name, this generally signals some aspect of personal growth. Hagar had – who was now Ketura – stayed loyal to Avraham and to his teachings all the time that they were separated. And she even advanced in her personal development.
It’s difficult to understand Yitzḥak without understanding what had taken place at the akeida – at the binding of Yitzḥak – at the end of Parshat Vayeira.
Avraham was commanded to bring Yitzḥak as an offering on Har HaMoria – Mount Moria – the site of the future Temple. This was obviously a major challenge for Avraham but a challenge he overcame. The commandment to sacrifice Yitzḥak called the entire question of his successor back into question and actually gave Avraham an opportunity to develop a better relationship with Yitzḥak and to choose him as his heir without any Divine coercion, especially since he had a three day journey with Yitzḥak, Yishmael and Eliezer to really struggle with the question of who should take his place now that HaShem’s selection had become less clear.
And it also helped Avraham to finally fully appreciate the crucial value of g’vura within the larger framework of ḥesed. Avraham ended up binding Yitzḥak – meaning that ḥesed bound and subordinated g’vura to its proper place – but he didn’t slaughter him.
And by stopping Avraham, the Creator was telling him that the binding by itself was sufficient – that there’s no need to actually destroy g’vura. Although Avraham most likely loved Yitzḥak on a personal level, he might have entertained the thought that g’vura needed to be destroyed for the sake of the greater good – so that ḥesed alone would impact the world. But as he took the knife and stretched it towards his son, Avraham’s hand was prevented from taking action. And he learned that g’vura has an important role to play in the very advancement of ḥesed.
At the akeida , both Avraham and Yitzḥak advanced in their personal development. Yitzḥak’s willingness to be tied should be understood as g’vura agreeing to limit itself. This was Yitzḥak’s growth. And ḥesed, personified by Avraham, stopped short of killing a bound and helpless g’vura. This was Avraham’s advancement.
The binding of Yitzḥak should therefore be seen as a dialogue of mutual enlightenment that established a connection between Avraham’s ḥesed and Yitzḥak’s g’vura that allowed for the future birth of tiferet to balance both attributes. This will ultimately be expressed by Yitzḥak’s son and successor Yaakov. And immediately after the akeida, Avraham was informed of the birth of Rivka, who would become Yitzḥak’s wife and mother to both Yaakov and Esav.
For Yitzḥak the akeida was extremely transformative. Our Sages teach that Yishmael had told Yitzḥak that because he underwent circumcision by choice at the age of 13, he and not Yitzḥak who had had his Brit Milah at 8 days old, should succeed their father Avraham.
Yitzḥak responded by expressing a willingness to give up his life. Yitzḥak understood that the way to counter Yishmael was to display even more self-sacrifice for the Hebrew mission. Our Sages teach us that this led also to Yitzḥak – in addition to Avraham – being tested at the akeida.
Avraham’s test came as a result of the events in the previous chapter. Avraham had been living in B’er-Sheva, in the desert within the boundaries of Avimelekh’s kingdom, but far removed from the capital city Grar. Avimelekh saw Avraham’s success, recognized him as a spiritual authority and – together with his military commander – paid him an official state visit as a sign of respect. Avimelekh perceived Avraham as a strategic threat and therefore sought to neutralize him by forging an alliance that would extend to their descendants.
As a seasoned politician, Avimelekh saw the situation more clearly than Avraham. Because he recognized Avraham’s extraordinary potential and understood that his children might eventually rule the land, the king wanted guarantees regarding future generations.
Avraham accepted Avimelekh’s offer to grant him the status of a religious leader within his political territory. The Philistines of that period were highly advanced in maritime trade and technological development – in fact we later see in the Book of Shmuel that the Philistines already had iron weapons, while the Hebrews were still using bronze. So it makes sense that Avraham would have seen the Philistine state as a powerful vehicle to spread his revolutionary teachings.
What was most significant for Avraham about this alliance with the Philistines was that it was an opportunity to influence the world in the present. The aspect regarding his and Avimelekh’s progeny in the future was less significant because there wasn’t yet a nation of Israel. Although he knew that his descendants would become a nation, he didn’t yet feel it deeply enough to completely redirect his activities or pass up on the opportunity being presented by Avimelekh. What was most immediately important to Avraham was to teach and to bring people close to HaShem.
Avraham seemed to have preferred life under Avimelekh as a recognized spiritual leader to his complicated political autonomy in Hebron. And therefore, B’reishit 21, verse 34, tells us that “Avraham lived in the land of the Philistines for a long time.” And as we already said, it was Sarah who actually forced the family back to Hebron.
Now because Avraham had no right to promise any part of the Land of Israel to Avimelekh, our Sages view this alliance as a transgression and teach it to be one of the reasons behind the akeida. But the relationship between these events is actually more complicated than mere sin and punishment. It’s better to understand their connection more as personal shortcomings and the necessary correction for those shortcomings. The akeida ultimately forced Avraham to modify his approach so as to be inclusive of g’vura.
The Adeidat Yitzḥak was actually even more transformative for Yitzḥak than it was for Avraham. B’reishit chapter 22, verse 19, states that “Avraham returned to his young men.”
Even though both Avraham and Yitzḥak had physically returned to Eliezer and Yishmael after the akeida, the verse uses singular language to only state that Avraham returned because Yitzḥak had attained a supreme level of self-sacrifice and actually remained at that level for the rest of his life. He was forever changed. Everything that he would go on to do from there – eating, drinking, farming, living with his wife, raising children – all these things would be done from the perspective of the Temple Mount.
We see Yitzḥak as an extremely vigorous person, because real kedusha requires active participation in the fullness of life. But Yitzḥak never retuned to being a regular human. In the metaphysical sense, Yitzḥak was sacrificed.
It’s actually worth examining what happened to Yitzḥak. Before the physical sacrifice could take place, a malakh – an angel – stopped Avraham in B’reishit 22, verse 11 by calling out “Avraham Avraham!”
At this point, Avraham had received a new doubled name – which means that he had risen to an even higher level at the akeida. He had already grown from Avram to Avraham and now he was essentially becoming Avraham Avraham.
We see four Biblical figures granted double names in our Scriptures. Avraham in this verse, Yaakov in B’reishit 46 verse 2, Moshe in Shmot 3 verse 4 and Shmuel in Shmuel Aleph, chapter 3 verse 10. What these double names show is the unification of a person’s nefesh and neshama. While these two words both tend to be translated into English as “soul” they have different meanings in Hebrew.
The nefesh could be understood as the lower, “outer” part of the soul, what a person is in the present, while the neshama is a person’s inner essence, what he aspires to be and the level he can reach. Calling a person by a double name suggests equivalence of that person’s outer and inner soul, indicating that said person has fulfilled the mission he was created for.
In other words, the doubled name symbolizes the realization of a person’s potential. But Yitzḥak actually reached beyond this level. His nefesh didn’t become equal to his neshama but was actually “annulled” following the events of the akeida. In a certain sense he became an “ish olam haba” – a “man of the World to Come” – in his lifetime. Those addressed with a double name have completed their assigned tasks, but Yitzḥak realized perfection.
[Published in Vision Magazine]