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Relationships Trump Children

When G-d commands Avraham to offer Isaac, He refers to Isaac as “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac.” (Gen. 22:2)

But after the Akeidah, G-d says, “You have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me (Gen. 22:12).

What happened to the love?!

I believe the answer to this question helps explain the Akeidah itself.

From the first time Avraham speaks to G-d, he is insistent that he needs children to carry on his legacy. G-d assures him that he will, indeed, have children – but Avraham continues to push, asking for proof and guarantees.

At the same time, Avraham essentially neglects his wife. When the family leaves to go to Canaan, Lot (a possible successor) is mentioned twice, and Sarai only once.  To make matters worse, when on his way to Egypt during a famine, Avraham significantly diminishes the status of his wife. He instructs her to tell the Egyptians that she was Avraham’s sister. She does as she is told, and Pharoah ends up taking Sarai for himself, paying Avraham richly in the exchange. Avraham essentially sells his wife, and cashes the check.

Had G-d not intervened, would the marriage have been over forever?

In Judaism, the ideal relationship with G-d is through our relationship to our spouse.  When Avraham is married to Sarai, he has a relationship with G-d. But after his wife dies, then Avraham loses that connection. It is by cleaving to one’s spouse that we connect with G-d. But when Avraham downplays his relationship with Sarai, and diminishes her status in the eyes of the world from wife to sister, he basically has sold her for material possessions!

As a consequence, the marriage suffers.  Sarah begins as a woman who does what she is told, but after she is pawned off as Avraham’s sister two times (the second time in Gen. 20), she grows into a woman who openly confronts her husband, who has grown cynical (and laughs) even about promises from G-d.  There is pain.

G-d tries to tell Avraham how important the marriage is. G-d tells Avraham to listen to Sarah (Gen. 21:12). G-d even, in the Bris bein habesarim, the “Covenant of the Parts”  (Gen. 15) shares a dark vision of what happens when things are split apart, a world or a marriage torn asunder.

Marriage exists for its own sake. If a marriage is blessed with children, it is a wonderful thing – but the marriage is supposed to be built first and foremost. And when we don’t prioritize our lives accordingly, then we, both as a nation and as individuals, end up paying the price.

So in the last exchange in the Torah between G-d and Avraham, G-d instructs Avraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. This time, Avraham seems to understand. He does not argue or negotiate. He wakes up early in the morning, and goes off with Isaac. The Binding of Isaac culminates with G-d being pleased that Avraham was willing to offer “thy son, thine only son, from me.” (Gen. 22:12). The love is not gone, but it is reprioritized.

There is a lesson here as well for those who are not, for whatever reason, blessed with children: marriage is holy in itself, a worthy endeavor even in the absence of progeny.   Indeed, the fact that Rivkah was born after the Akeidah (and the Torah tells us this in the verses immediately following the Akeidah, suggesting causality) might tell us that a certain distance between father and son was necessary in order for Isaac to be ready to be married.

G-d is making it clear: the relationships within our generation are more important than even our connections to our children. Our marriage to our spouses and our G-d trumps everything else, because it is the pinnacle of fulfillment.

Footnote:  After Sarai has been taken by Pharoah, G-d plagues the Egyptians, and Pharoah sends Avraham out with much material wealth.

But there is an enormous cost! The famous (and mysterious) “Covenant between the Parts” (Gen. 15) includes the statement that Avraham’s descendants will be enslaved for 400 years, and then be brought out by G-d, albeit with great wealth.

So let’s assume that Avraham’s experience in Egypt was a preview of what was to come. But what happens if we go a step farther, and ask: did Avraham cause the future enslavement and redemption of the Jewish people?

Arguably, this is so.  Avraham may well have made a mistake when he left Canaan in the first place. G-d had not told him to leave (though He had told Avraham to go to Canaan in the first place). The Torah does not tell us whether or not the famine even necessitated that he flee. Perhaps he was just seeking to preserve his wealth.

And there is a consequence. After the Jewish people went down to Egypt, the Torah does not tell us that G-d talks with Yaakov or his sons in Egypt at all. For all the time we were enslaved there up until the revelation to Moshe, G-d is entirely silent, as if He was not there at all. Avraham broke off his relationship with his wife, and so G-d does precisely the same thing to us.

Comments are welcome!

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