In this week’s Parsha, we read of the fulfillment of the promise that G-d had made to Avraham in last week’s Parsha, namely that he and Sarah would have a son through whom the Jewish nation would be built. It is the birth of Yitzhak, with all that that entails both within the household of Avraham as well as to the Jewish people, which dominates the latter half of Parshat VaYerah. The climax, of course, is reached in the description of Akeidat Yitzhak, where we witness the mutual willingness of Avraham and Yitzhak to allow Yitzhak to be sacrificed as a statement of faith in Hashem.
The birth of Yitzhak, and the havoc it plays within Avraham’s household, is described in Perek 21. We have already seen Avraham’s ambivalence toward displacing Yishamel, the son born to him through Hagar. In perek 17, when Hashem informs Avraham of the impending birth of Yitzhak, Avraham actually rejects the offer. Instead, Avraham prays that Yishmael be worthy of the role envisioned for Yitzhak. In our Parsha, we once again see that same ambivalence demonstrated. When Sarah witnesses Yishmael mocking Yitzhak (regardless of the nature of the mocking), she insists that Avraham remove him and his mother from their home (21:9). Avraham is horrified, and only does so when Hashem Himself intervenes, demanding of Avraham that Sarah’s words be heeded. G-d’s argument here is quite instructive: “Ki b’Yitzhak yikareh lecha zera”. “For through (literally, in) Yitzhak your descendants shall be called” (21:12). But Hashem does not end there. In the very next passuk (13) comes the second half of the argument: “Ve’gam et bein ha’ama l’goy asimenu, ki zarache hu”. “And I will also make the son of the maidservant into a great nation, since he (too) is your descendant”. Avraham certainly did not need G-d to explain to him His reasoning in order to insure Avraham’s immediate and unquestioning fulfillment of the command. Yet, it would appear that the reminder that it is Yitzhak who will be his spiritual heir, coupled with the promise that Yishmael would also become the forefather of a great nation, is what Avraham needed to put his mind at ease with the seemingly harsh decree of the expulsion of Yishmael and Hagar. In any event, Avraham’s devotion to Hashem’s dictates are demonstrated in the very next passuk (14) when Avraham rushes to fulfill the command. “Vayashkem Avraham baboker”, “And Avraham arose early in the morning.” This, of course, is identical to the language used in the Akeida (22:3), a language that Rashi interprets there as indicating Avraham’s eagerness to fulfill the mitzva with which he has been charged. This same eagerness, suggest some meforshim (for a most extreme example, see the Ibn Ezra), is the reason that Avraham sends Hagar and Yishmael ill equipped into the desert. How could Avraham have sent them off without sufficient provisions? This, too is an extension of Hashem’s rather vague command. “Kol asher tomar eilecha Sara, shma b’kola”, “Everything that Sarah tells you, listen to her.” If Sarah wants Hagar and Yishamael sent out with the bare minimum of provisions, so be it.
(It should be noted, of course, that not all the commentaries accept the position that Avraham endangered the lives of Hagar and Yishmael by intentionally under supplying them. For an opinion at the opposite extreme of the Ibn Ezra, see the Radak, who even believes that Avraham gave them money and other valuables before sending them off. The more mainstream opinions strike a balance between the Ibn Ezra and the Radak, suggesting that Avraham supplied them with sufficient supplies, but that they became lost in the desert. This is the opinion of the Rashbam. The idea that Avraham forgot to “pack a map” for them and did not equip them with sufficient water supports our thesis. Based on Sarah’s insistence, Avraham only gives Hagar and Yishmael the basics.)
Sarah’s demand that Yishmael be removed from the household, and the subsequent banishment of Hagar and Yishmael, can not but remind us of an earlier, similar episode, namely Sarah’s harsh treatment of Hagar and Hagar’s flight from Sarah (16:4-14). There is, of course, one striking difference between the two stories, Hashem’s reaction. While in both episodes Sarah’s action seems questionable, if not downright vindictive, in our case Hashem explicitly backs Sarah with his command to Avraham. No such support is evident in the earlier story, a fact that allows the meforshim license to criticize Sarah. This is especially evident in the commentary of the Ramban “Our Matriarch sinned by persecuting (Hagar), and Avraham sinned in permitting her to do so” and the Radak “ And Sarai acted both unethically and unrighteously” (both in 16:6). Obviously, Hashem’s approbation in the later episode means that no criticism can be offered.
But why did Hashem support Sarah’s demand? A simple reading suggests that Sarah had correctly read the map, and that she realized that Yishmael’s presence represented a serious threat to the spiritual development of Yitzhak. This is certainly the thrust of Rashi, who quotes the Midrash that states that Yishmael had introduced the triple whammy of idol worship, sexual licentiousness and bloodshed into the household of Avraham and therefore had to be banished. If this is true, however, we must ask what Avraham was thinking and why he had to be coerced into following Sarah’s instructions.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch suggests that Avraham’s judgement has been skewed by his love for Yishmael, his first-born. Avraham is aware of Yishmael’s failings but believes that they can be corrected with the proper parental oversight. Sending him away will only aggravate the situation, by leaving Yishmael’s education and development in the hands of Hagar (of whom Rav Hirsch has a very dim view) and of Hagar’s family. Sarah, on the other hand, sees things differently. Yishmael’s failings constitute an immediate threat to Yishmael and must be dealt with quickly and completely. But might not have Sarah’s own biases skewed her perspective? Hashem’s answer is unequivocal. “Kol asher tomar eilecha Sara, shma b’kola”, “Everything that Sarah tells you, listen to her.”
In his recently published work “Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua”, Rav Elchanan Samet, a senior Ram in Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maale Adumim, suggests another possible explanation for Hashem’s intervention. Rav Samet suggests that the twin promises regarding Avraham’s two sons are in fact inseparable. “Ki b’Yitzhak yikareh lecha zera”. “For through Yitzhak your descendants shall be called”. “Ve’gam et bein ha’ama l’goy asimenu, ki zarache hu”. “And I will also make the son of the maidservant into a great nation, since he (too) is your descendant”. Hashem is equally committed to seeing both His promises regarding Yishmael and Yitzhak fulfilled. In Yishmael’s case this can only be accomplished outside of Avraham’s home; a “pere adam”, an unfettered man, can only reach his destiny when removed from civilization. Yishmael must leave his father’s home and build a new home for himself in the desert. But even this, says Rav Samet, is insufficient. For a person of such calling to achieve his destiny, he must be “born anew”, by undergoing such a traumatic event that it becomes clear that his continued existence is of a different quality and purpose than his previous one. Yishmael experiences this when he almost dies in the desert. Yitzhak will undergo a similar experience during the Akeida. They do not merely survive such a trauma, but they are reborn, with a new sense of purpose and destiny.
I believe that we can use Rav Samet’s approach to understand a difficult midrash on the Akeida. In Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer(31) the midrash states that Yitzhak in fact died on the alter and then experienced “Techiyat HaMaitim”, return from death. Why would the midrash suggest such a scenario? According to Rav Samet’s approach, the reason is clear. The midrash wishes to stress the transition, the rebirth of Yitzhak, who will now be prepared to fulfill his mission in life.