Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Sacrifice of Sarah

When Hagar's labor began, Sarai was there with the midwife, although she was not anxious to see it emerge. The night was long and Hagar's screams piercing, but Sarai felt nothing. Finally, a long, scrawny boy slid out from between Hagar's legs. The midwife severed the cord, then turned to present the child to the mistress.

Sarai was frozen in her place. She could not pick up her hands to take the bundle of life. She remembered the first night she sent Avram to Hagar; she remembered how she asked God to send howling winds so that she would not hear Hagar's moans of ecstasy. She remembered the moment she knew Hagar was with child. Sarai stared at her husband's son, then his mother. The midwife thrust the baby toward her, yet Sarai still made no move to take him. She could feel Hagar's eyes burning into her. At last, she sucked in her breath saying, "Give him to his mother." Sarai fled the tent. 

After that, Avram was careful not to go to Hagar while Sarai was still awake. He doted on his son, but he restrained himself before his wife. Sarai was neither blind nor stupid; still, she said nothing. She heard them through the skin walls of the tents, she could see the smug satisfaction on Hagar's face each morning after. The only comfort she took in all this was that Hagar did not again conceive. 

The child was healthy and beautiful; he favored his mother's people. Ishmael grinned and gurgled every time he saw his father and his father could not help but beam when he saw his son. Each passing day gave the old man new cause to praise God's wisdom in granting this one wish. He found himself contemplating the very nature of the universe and the role God wanted him to play. Avram was too absorbed in his son and his journey toward God to notice there was a space between him and his wife. 

Sarai kept the pain in her heart well hidden; she tucked it into a corner where no one but she could see it. She made certain Avram did not suspect. She tended to his needs, shared his bed on occasion, and smiled at all times. Any feelings she had toward Hagar were set aside in favor of Avram's need for peace in his household. 

God summoned Avram and made a covenant with him. "Walk in My ways and be blameless... I will establish My covenant between Me and you and I will make you exceedingly numerous. As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I make you fertile and make nations of you; kings shall come forth from offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession. I will be their God." 

Naturally, Avram, now Avraham, thought his descendants would come through Ishmael, but God had other ideas. After instructing him to circumcise himself and the men of his household, God told Avraham, "As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her." 

Avraham laughed, "Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old...or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?" It was ridiculous notion at best. "Oh, that Ishmael might live by your favor instead!" 

God was annoyed with his incredulity. "If I said Sarah will bear a son, she will bear a son and you shall name him Yitzchak; and I will keep my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come. As for Ishmael, I'll listen to you. I hereby bless him, as well. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation. However," said God with a slight note of warning, "my covenant will maintain with Yitzchak whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year." 

There was no more to be said. God left Avraham alone to consider the enormity of this new revelation. 

Avraham returned to the camp and immediately began preparations for the circumcision. There was little chance to protest; Avraham made it clear all men were to enter the covenant if they wanted to stay with him. As a sign of his conviction, Avraham went first, followed by Ishmael. The women, Sarai and Hagar included, stayed away from the ceremony, but stood nearby with the appropriate salves and bandages for the men. 

By the strength of his belief in God's commandment, Avraham withstood the rigors of the day, but by nightfall, he was in pain, exhausted, and ready to collapse. Sarai helped him to his tent. She made sure he ate some stew before he stretched out on his bed. Sitting beside him, she touched her hand to his brow and was relieved to find it cool and unfevered. His hand caught hers and held it. 

"God has commanded us to change our names," he said softly. "I will be known not as Avram, but as Avraham, and you shall be called Sarah." 

"Sarah? repeated Sarai. "Why Sarah?" 

But there was no answer save Avraham's snores. 

She didn't like the name. Sarah meant princess. A woman born of high station; to her mind, an inaccessible woman. A princess was a daughter born to a king; it was an inherited title, not one of merit or power. Avraham, she knew, meant 'father of a multitude.' Obviously, she was not to be the mother of a multitude; she was simply a woman who could not be touched. She wondered, too, if Hagar had been given a new name. "No doubt, Queen," she snorted to herself. The joke didn't lessen the hurt. Of all the names this God could've given her, no name could\ have made her feel worse. 

Her own tears splashed on her lap. They were silent tears, but hot and hurting all the same. Sarah felt barren; betrayed by her body and now by her husband and his God. Once, he would have shared God's instructions with her. Once, they would've sat up through the night talking about the future and what was to come of their decision to follow God's path. Since the night of Ishmael's birth, Avram had had no time to sit and talk to her. "Is there no room in this covenant for me?" she whispered into the night. She prayed to God for death. "I cannot watch him rejoice in his son, nor do I want him to separate himself from Ishmael because of me. Let me slip away from life in the night; let them bury me beside the road. Don't make me watch my husband's line come from the loins of Hagar's son." 

Avraham recovered slowly, but quickly enough to sit outside beneath a terebinth tree, administering to his clan. Sarah saw to his comfort. She made sure he had fruit beside him as well as a skin of curd and milk. While she tended to her own daily chores, she kept a close eye on her husband. At night, in their tent, she waited for him to say something, anything to her, yet he remained silent. Sarah felt cut off from him, from the clan, from his God. She was not a part of this revelation nor would she ever be. "Sarah," she wept in the darkness, "a fitting name for one who is noticed but not heard." 

God felt Sarah's tears and was, once again, annoyed with Avraham. Selective repetition was not what God had in mind. Sarah was hurting because she had been told only part of what she needed to hear. 

Avraham was still sitting outside his tent beneath the terebinth tree when he saw three men suddenly near by. Although he had been watching the road, he had not seen them in the distance and their abrupt appearance startled him. Struggling to his feet, he called to them. "Don't go past my tent! Please, sit down, let me get some water to bathe your feet and a morsel of bread to refresh yourselves." 

The three men accepted his offer. 

Avraham hurried into his tent to find Sarah. "Quickly, take three measures of choice flour! Knead it and make cakes!" He then hurried to the herd to pick a calf for slaughter. Ishmael went with him; it was time for the boy to learn to art of hospitality. When the first foods were ready, Avraham took curds and milk to his guests. "Please, eat your fill," he said as he respectfully waited on them. 

"Where is your wife, Sarah?" asked one of the men. 

"Sarah?" repeated Avraham; the use of this new name caused him to stop his fidgeting. Other than to Sarah herself, Avraham had not told anyone of their new names. If the men knew his wife was to be called Sarah, Avraham concluded, they must have come directly from God! "Uh.....Sarah is in the tent." 

Sarah was standing behind the flap watching her husband and his visitors. Since she would not be permitted to serve men herself, it was the only way to hear news from abroad. At the sound of her new name, however, Sarah leaned closer to the opening. 

The stranger then said, "I will return to you when life is due, and your wife Sarah shall have a son." 

Unable to help herself, Sarah guffawed rather loudly. And the guffaw disintegrated into laughter. She held her sides as she tried to keep her mouth shut lest Avraham be embarrassed by her. "Oh, of course!" she howled silently, "now that I'm too old to even enjoy my equally old husband, we're going to have a baby. Why, it's only natural that so old a woman can bear a son!" 

The men outside heard her laughter. Avraham's face reddened; he had already heard this from God once, now someone else, a messenger from God, was saying it again. His mouth flapped open and closed several times, unable to form a respectful response. The three men stared at Avraham. "You did not tell her?" the one asked almost gruffly. But before Avraham could answer, the same man said loudly, so that Sarah could hear, "Why is Sarah laughing, saying that an old woman cannot bear a son?" He called toward the tent, "Is anything too wondrous for God to do? As I told you, I shall return to you when life is due and Sarah shall have a son!" 

Sarah's laughter died in her mouth. She could sense they were waiting for her to say something, anything. "Oh, I wasn't really laughing at you," she fibbed through the flap, "I was laughing with joy." 

The stranger didn't buy it. "No, Sarah, you laughed." 

She could not see the smallest hint of a smile on his face. 

Yitzchak slid easily from his mother's womb and her breasts were full for him. As old as she was, Sarah felt twenty again; full of life and vitality, ready to take on the endless tasks of motherhood. 

At first, Sarah was willing to let the much older Ishmael play with his young brother. The boy seemed gentle enough with the baby, but as Yitzchak grew and began to toddle, Sarah was concerned about the rough play between them. There were times when Ishmael treated Yitzchak nicely; usually, though, he teased the youngster until he was in tears. Sarah took Hagar to task for Ishmael's lack of kindness, but Hagar dismissed her complaints. Tension was mounting between the two women, yet Avraham did nothing to alleviate it. 

On the day of Yitzchak's weaning feast, Sarah could not find her son. The clan was gathered to celebrate this milestone, but the boy was nowhere to be found. Hiking up her robes, she frantically searched for him. Finally, she heard his screams. Following the sound, Sarah found Ishmael dangling Yitzchak over the communal well. With one hand, she grabbed Yitzchak, with the other, she delivered a resounding smack to Ishmael's arm. The older boy recoiled, ready to strike Sarah. "You will not touch me nor my son!" she snarled between clenched teeth. "Go to your mother's tent and wait there!" Ishmael ran as fast as he could. 

Holding the wailing Yitzchak against her breast, Sarah found her husband and practically dragged him into the tent. "He would have dropped Yitzchak into the well, Avraham," she shouted. "He would have killed our son without a second thought. I have found him leading Yitzchak into the rams' pen. I have stopped him from using Yitzchak as a target for his slingshot. I have complained endlessly to Hagar and all she says is, 'Boys will be boys.' She ignores my demands that she teach her son manners appropriate to his station. He may be the older, but you yourself have told me he will not inherit your position. That position is rightfully Yitzchak's!" 

"Surely we have more than enough room to raise two sons, Sarah!" Avraham protested. 

"Space is not the issue, Avraham; surely God had enough room to leave Sodom and Gomorrah!" 

Avraham winced; they had witnessed the destruction of the two cities and on its heels, had almost witnessed the destruction of themselves in the process. "What would you have me do, Sarah?" asked Avraham. 

"Something, anything." She waited for Avraham to answer, but the old man was silent. "Fine," she rasped. "I'll tell you what to do. Send them away. I will not spend my days worrying whether or not Ishmael will kill him the next time." 

Avraham left her alone in the tent without comment. The next morning, he prepared a skin of water and a parcel of bread. "You must leave this camp," he told Hagar. 

"Why, because Sarai says so?" sneered concubine. 

"Because it will be better for Ishmael if you leave." 

"You would send away your eldest son?" 

"God will care for you, Hagar." 

"Whose God, Avraham? Your God? I do not worship your God." Hagar began to weep. 

"It does not matter, Hagar. God will take care of you and the boy." He took her arm, and took Ishmael's hand, and led them to the road. "Keep them safe," he murmured to God. Avraham watched Hagar walk out into the bleak wilderness and on that day, a piece of his heart was broken. He never spoke of Ishmael again to Sarah, but the image of his first born son stayed with him all the days of his life. 

The silence between Avraham and Sarah grew more profound with each passing year. Although they continued to share a tent and a bed, there was little conversation between them. He was deep in thought about the path he had taken, about the path he followed, his family behind him. Avraham, when not tending to his flocks and herds, spent more and more time off on his own in the desert. He relied on Sarah to tend to the business of the encampment; she was the one who knew how many lambs were birthed and how much one could get in trade for wool. The shepherds and the goatherds no longer went to Avraham with their questions, they sought out Sarah. So long as everything ran smoothly, she saw was no point in disturbing Avraham. He was so weighted with this burden God had given him that Sarah decided it was her job to allow him the time and space to work it through; it was the most sacred of tasks. Sarah never questioned what exactly Avraham was doing; if he wanted her to know, he would tell her. The periods of isolation grew longer and longer for Sarah, although Yitzchak's well being took up most of her time. She busied herself with the day to day tasks of running a large household and she told herself often that preparing Yitzchak for his future role as leader of their clan was all that was important to her. 

After the covenant for peace was made with Abimelech, Avraham found life to be calm with little more to do than worry about his flocks and his herds. As Yitzchak grew, he took to following his father around. He wanted to help with the lambs, he wanted to help with the shearing. He asked endless questions of Avraham who delighted in trying to answer them all. And Avraham saw a great difference between Yitzchak and Ishmael whom he missed with all his heart. Whereas Ishmael never asked about the world and how it came to be, Yitzchak wanted to know everything about the faceless God of his father. Avraham tried to answer the questions, although not all of them could be answered with simple explanations a child could understand. He did the best he could, all the while hoping that eventually God would speak to Yitzchak as God had spoken to him. Days melded into weeks, weeks into months, and as Avraham instructed his son in the ways of God, he wondered if he would hear the voice of the Holy One again in his lifetime; and if he did not, he hoped that Yitzchak would when the time was right. Avraham decided God's silence meant all was well and if he missed that Voice, he made no mention of it to Sarah. 

On a day while he was alone with his sheep, when the air was still and hot, Avraham felt himself no longer alone. There was that strange vibrancy in the air once more and he fell to the ground as he heard his name called. 


"I am here," he replied, keeping his eyes averted. 

"Take your son, your beloved son, Yitzchak, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights which I will point out to you." 

Avraham's heart stopped beating. His breath came short. His mouth flopped open and closed. For a long time he remained on the ground trying to breathe again. He was astounded, shocked, filled with grief. Avraham recalled God's words: I will keep my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come . Had God changed the covenant? Was Yitzchak, still so young, still so unformed, already deemed unworthy to follow in his father's footsteps? Would God break a promise made in the heat of another afternoon? He tried to form words of protest, but before a single one could come out, the air returned to its stillness and he knew God had left that place. Avraham struggled against his anguish, yet he knew he would carry out God's commandment. He returned to camp before nightfall and went directly to his tent. 

"Are you unwell?" Sarah asked him when she brought him water for washing. 

"I'm fine." 

"I know you, Avraham; something is wrong." 

"Nothing....nothing is wrong. I am tired and hungry. Get me something to eat." 

Sarah left the tent, but returned shortly with a tray of roasted lamb and vegetables. She watched silently as her husband picked at his food. He pushed more lamb about the tray than made it into his mouth. Finally, he pushed the tray away. 

"Avraham, it's not like you not to eat." 

"It's the heat." 

"I doubt it. Is your stomach bothering you?" 


Sarah frowned. There was no point in talking to him; he would not answer. She picked up the tray and left him alone. 

When she lay down beside him that night, she knew he was still awake although he made no sound whatsoever. When she awoke in the morning, however, he was gone. Yitzchak's bed was empty as well. Rising from the pallet, she noticed his waterskin and his cloak were missing from their pegs in the tent pole. Outside, people were going about their morning business. Sarah checked on the cooking fires, then went to give her servants their instructions for the day. There was more than enough to do to keep her occupied. By midday, however, she was growing concerned about Yitzchak; he had not come back for his meal. 

Methodically, she started looking about the camp for her son. She began with the other children of the camp, but on one had seen little Yitzchak. She checked the pens and the well. "Have you seen Yitzchak?" she asked the goatherds. They shook their heads, but promised to keep an eye out for the boy. She walked through the herds as she did every day, but on this day, she was not counting sheep, she was searching for her son. 

The late afternoon shadows were lengthening by the time she found someone who had seen Avraham leave the camp before dawn. "Did he say where they were going? she asked the servant. 

"No, mistress, he did not. He asked for an ass to be saddled, then left with the boy and two servants. They road toward the east." 

"Did he say when he would return?" 

"No, mistress." The servant shrugged his shoulders. "I'm sorry; I wish I could tell you more." 

"If Yitzchak is with his father, I'm sure he's all right," Sarah managed to smile. "You've done nothing wrong, so don't feel responsible. At least I know they're together." How much trouble can they get into? she wondered silently. 

Sarah took her dinner alone in her tent, then lay down. Sleep was long in coming, and when it came, it was sporadic. She awoke several times throughout the night, only to be disappointed when she could not see the dawn creeping over the horizon. Laying down again, Sarah prayed, "My God and God of my husband; please keep them safe and bring them home." 

God heard Sarah's prayer and was mildly annoyed with Avraham. There had been plenty of opportunity for Avraham to tell his wife of this commandment. There had been plenty of opportunity for Avraham to argue for the life of his son the way he had argued for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah. But instead to pleading his case, Avraham had been silent. Even if he had told Sarah and Sarah argued with him, she would have made him ask God to reconsider. He did not even cast his eyes upward as he did when Ishmael was to be cast out of the camp. Instead, Avraham blindly went out into the wilderness to slaughter his beloved son. 

The next day was long and painful for Sarah. She moved through her chores like one asleep. The servants gave her wide berth; they could tell she was frantic with worried inside even if she appeared outwardly calm. Her personal servant made sure the old woman ate something, then rested out of the afternoon's heat. At nightfall, she helped Sarah prepare for bed, but not before she insisted her mistress have some milk and curd. Once she was alone, Sarah prayed again to God, saying, "My God and God of my husband, please let them be safe beneath Your watch." 

On the third night, her dreams were filled with horrific visions of Yitzchak, bloody and limp, lying on a stone slab. She heard herself scream as her son was transformed into a ram; Avraham stood beside him, his long knife dripping with blood. Bolting upright in the bed, Sarah thought her heart would stop. Her breath was shallow and ragged. She gasped for air. The vision remained before her; she shut her eyes against the sight. When she opened her eyes again, the image was gone. "Avraham!" she cried out, "what have you done?" 

There was no answer in the silence of the tent. Clutching her chest, Sarah fell back against the pallet. The universe crushed her beneath its weight. She could scarcely breathe now. "God of my husband, how can You give us so precious a gift as is Yitzchak only to take him from us? How can You who sent Your messengers to tell me I would bear a son, ask for his life so soon? Take me as your sacrifice, my God; take me instead of my son!" she whispered into the darkness. 

She was still alive in the morning, and by evening, there was still no sign of Avraham. Somehow, she managed to keep her head up despite the oppressive emptiness inside her. For five more days she waited and for five nights, she prayed to God for his safety. And each morning, when she opened her eyes, she wondered why God could not hear her. 

The last bit of the seventh day was fading in the west when Sarah heard a shout go up from the shepherds. Raising her skirt hem so she could run, she trundled her way across the camp toward the road where a man was coming from the east on an ass, three people walking beside him. As soon as she counted three, and one of the three on foot was obviously as child, Sarah turned her eyes upward. "I shall never ask for anything ever again, my God." 

"Ema! Ema!" called Yitzchak as he scampered toward his mother. "Ema! Ema! Wait 'til I tell you what happened! Oh, Ema! There was an angel from God....and I heard him talk to Abba! And.....and......and......." 

Sarah listened to her son's tale, never taking her eyes from him or her arms from around him as he recounted the story of how he helped his father to build an altar of stone, how Abba tied him up and was ready to give him to God when the angel called to them from heaven to show them the ram instead. And how Abba let him help to make the burnt offering. And how they saved the ram's horn and he could blow it.....a little. Sarah drank in each word, and in each breath, she thanked God for Yitzchak's deliverance from harm. 

Sarah took Yitzchak to the well to wash the travel dust from his face. She called for some milk and curd, and cakes. She watched him eat until it was clear he was more asleep then awake, then she tucked him into his bed and kissed his brow. "Yitzchak," she whispered into his ear, "I love you with all my heart. Remember that." 

"I love you, too, Ema." yawned the boy as his eyes slid shut. 

With another prayer of thanks to God, she left the tent. 

Avraham was waiting for her in their tent. "Sarah," he started. 

Sarah stared at him and said nothing. 

"God commanded me......" 

Still, she said nothing. 

"I had to go; I had to take him....." 

The silence continued. 

"God told me to bring my son....." 

Sarah held up her hand to stop him. "Our son." 

"I did not tell you because I thought you wouldn't understand." 

Sarah turned her back to him. 

Lying beside him, Sarah stared at the ceiling. She wondered how he could sleep after what he had done.....almost done. She blinked back her tears. My God, she prayed silently, I have been excluded from this. You have obviously found me unworthy to be a part of Your covenant with my husband. I am alone and disconsolate. My heart which was once full of love and kindness for my husband is dried up and bitter in my breast. That name, the one you revealed to Avram, is sour on my tongue yet I am not afraid to talk to You. My whole life has been spent seeing to my husband's needs. I used to think I was a part of his journey to You, but I see now that I am not. I have been as a maidservant in his household. with responsibility, one who has received generous gifts, but I was and I remain, outside. I have never asked You for anything but the safety of my son. I said I would not ask anything else of You, but You know my heart and you know it is shattered into a thousand pieces. I am old and I have lived long enough. You wanted a sacrifice, oh Holy One? Then take me!" 

God heard Sarah's voice and wept for her. Avraham had ample opportunity to share his vision with her; he could've made her a part of his covenant and he chose not to do so. He could've taken Sarah with him to Moriah, but he did not. He could've argued for Yitzchak, but he did not. Sarah argued for her son. She had passed the test her husband had failed. She deserved better than to spend the end of her days alone in her heart. So, God made Sarah close her eyes this last time. God took Sarah, in place of her son, away from Avraham. 

When Avraham awoke in the morning, he was surprised to find Sarah so still beside him. Gently, he touched her shoulder, then recoiled when he found it cold. He pressed his ear to her breast and neither heard nor felt the beating of her heart. He cried out and the servants came running to the tent. 

"Avraham proceeded to mourn Sarah and bewail her." He bought the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite and buried her there. 

In the weeks which passed, Avraham noticed there was a hole in his heart. Gone was her smile and with it, her laughter. He found someone to oversee the herds and flocks, but he had to supervise it himself now. The maidservants brought his meals, but he found he was eating alone. Yitzchak grieved as a child, refused to sit with his father, and blamed him for his mother's death. And for a while, Avraham thought he had lost both wife and son. 

Eventually, he took another wife, but he soon found neither she nor the sons she gave him brought a light into his eyes. And before Yitzchak was to inherit, he sent those sons away as well. Every time he looked into Yitzchak's eyes, he saw Sarah and a part of him ached. He could not name that part, nor could he describe the sadness he felt when he awoke in the night and it was another woman, not Sarah, beside him. He never expected nor understood the emptiness which formed the perimeter of the remainder of his days.

Torah verses: Genesis, THE TORAH published by The Jewish Publication Society of America © 1962

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