Vayera: A Lesson from Isaac and Ishmael
In this week’s Torah portion Vayera we find the akeida, the binding of Isaac. It is a story we know well as we recite it every Rosh Hashanah. That being said, there are certain gaps in the story. For example, we do not know how old Isaac was at the time of the akeida. According to one midrash, Isaac was thirty-seven.1 Which leaves us with a larger question: if Isaac was thirty-seven, as the midrash teaches, why on earth would he go along with being sacrificed to God? He could have simply walked away or fought the outcome with his much older father.
The reason why Isaac went along, according to the midrash, was because it all started with an argument between Isaac and Ishmael: “And it came to pass after these words” that Isaac and Ishmael were in dispute. Ishmael said: “It is right for me to be the heir of my father, since I am his first-born son.” But Isaac said: “It is right for me to be the heir of my father, since I am the son of Sarah his wife, but you are the son of Hagar, the handmaid of my mother.” Ishmael answered and said: “I am more righteous than you, because I was circumcised when thirteen years old; and if it had been my wish to refuse, I would not have handed myself over to be circumcised.” Isaac answered and said: “Am I not now thirty-seven years old? If the Holy One, blessed be He, demanded all my members I would not hesitate.” Immediately, these words were heard before the Lord of the universe, and immediately, the word of God tested Abraham, and said unto him, “Abraham,” and he said, “Here I am.”2
In trying to best each other in the eyes of their father and in the eyes of God, Isaac ends up committing himself to a pathway that could result in his death. This argument seems so silly on the surface, but it gives us a lot of insight into the relationships between siblings.
The Torah is especially cognizant of sibling dynamics. From Cain and Abel through Moses, Miriam and Aaron, these relationships can be ones made up of great love and great conflict. The first murder was between brothers. Sadly, there have been many since.
In this way, the Torah is reminding us of the power our familial relationships have over us and that these same relationships have communal, regional, national, and global implications as well. Sadly, our world, and by extension, our families continue to be torn apart by increasingly solidified positions over issues ranging from the pandemic, vaccines, politics, economics, religion, and the like. These positions have torn families and communities apart. There has been much in the way of argument, but little in the way of dialogue as, like Isaac and Ishmael, each is sure they are right while the other is wrong.
The only time Isaac and Ishmael ever come together again, was when they buried their father, which can be found near the end of next week’s Torah portion. By this point, they are two very different people, but they were able to come together one last time to honor their father.
The Torah is reminding us that there is always hope for reconciliation. Most of us have more in common with each other than we think. We are grounded in the tradition of loving both the stranger and our neighbors. We are compelled to act in ways of gemilut chasadim, loving kindness and of tzedakah, righteousness and justice. We do have many fundamental differences, and we will often not see eye to eye. Nonetheless, we should live in ways recognizing the humanity in each other. The best way to do this is through the pursuit of shalom.
In order to seek peace and pursue it, as we are commanded to do, we are reminded to start with the families involved and build from there. For the sources of the greatest pain and the greatest love, all starts at home, and by extension in our communities. May the story of Isaac and Ishmael remind us of our common heritage and our shared future together. And may we not let our divisions blind us to the Godliness and holiness in our fellow human beings.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 89b
2 Translation from: https://thetorah.com/mitigating-the-akedah/