“The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his” Genesis 21:11


In this week’s sidrah, Abraham is confronted with the loss of not one but two sons. Preceding the story of the binding of Isaac, we read about Sarah’s request to banish Hagar and with her, Abraham’s son, Ishmael. Curiously, while we hear about Abraham’s distress regarding Ishmael, the Tanach does not record Abraham’s emotion when God demands the sacrifice of his other son, Isaac.

Most importantly, in the case of neither of his sons does Abraham argue with God to save them from probable death. The absence of Abraham standing up for his sons is particularly shocking because we read at the beginning of the sidrah that Abraham argues with God against the destruction of the city of Sodom.

How can we explain why a city with less than 10 righteous individuals deserves more of a defence than Abraham’s own sons? Abraham’s top two commitments are at stake here: loyalty to God and loyalty to justice. At Sodom, faced with a society lacking in justice, Abraham challenges God and thereby asserts his own sense of justice and his trust in God’s commitment to justice.

In the case of his sons, Abraham prioritises loyalty to God. But the stories cannot and should not be read separately. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes, it was “because of the experience of God’s responding to him in his plea for Sodom that Abraham did not question the command to sacrifice his beloved son”.

The stories in this week’s sidrah thus present us with a difficult question: if we can’t be sure of divine justice, can we be truly loyal to God? 
This question goes right to the heart of what it means to believe, yet isn’t it comforting to know that even our first patriarch had to face that challenge?


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