Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children! Yet I have borne a son in his old age.” The child grew up and was weaned, and Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing. She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his.
This teaches that Abraham our forefather caused the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, to be called out in the mouth of all passersby. How so? After the guests of Abraham ate and drank, they arose to bless him. He said to them: But did you eat from what is mine? Rather, you ate from the food of the God of the world. Therefore, you should thank and praise and bless the One Who spoke and the world was created. In this way, Abraham cause everyone to call out to God.
Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take your son, your favored son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will out to you.”
Sanhedrin 89b (Avivah Zornberg, trans)
“After these things”: after the words of Satan, as it is written, “The child grew up and was weaned, and [Abraham] held a great feast”. Satan said to God, “This old man — You granted him fruit of the womb when he was a hundred years old. And yet of all the feasts that he made, he did not have a single turtle dove or young bird to sacrifice to You!” God answered him, “He had done nothing that was not for his son — and if I were to say to him, ‘Sacrifice your son to Me,’ he would immediately obey.” Immediately after that, “God tested Abraham.”
Bereishit Rabbah (Avivah Zornberg, trans)
“After these things”: after the troubled thoughts that ensued. Who was troubled? Abraham was troubled; he thought, “I have rejoiced and I have spread joy everywhere — and yet I have never set aside a bullock or a ram for God.” God replied, “In the end you will be told to sacrifice your son and you will not refuse.”
Towards the end of Abraham’s life, after the birth of his son Isaac, he appears to have ended his journeys and settled. The Midrash imagines that he settled in a Hotel Abraham, were he holds feasts, exuding lovingkindness and his faith in God. In the midrashic imagination, at the feast, Abraham asks his guests to bless God, awakening an awareness of the One God.
But Abraham is troubled. Has he truly followed the path that God wanted? Is this life the one God wanted him to construct?
In explaining this distress, Avivah Zornberg explores psychoanalytical notions of the experience of weaning. The infant and its mother goes through a process of separation. It is anxiety provoking but also enables the infant to start recognizing its own existence and the separate existence of his or her mother. It is only through this separation that the infant begins to truly develop the capacity for a relationship — to experience love for his or her mother. Similarly, Abraham too, has to experience the otherness of God, through the Akedah. It is through the space that the Akedah opens up that Abraham can separate the expression of his self — his particular chesed and joy — from God, and in turn, open up his ability to connect with God.
Alternatively, when people age they reflect on their life and ponder what they have accomplished.
The midrashic sources also pose the problem that Hagar’s and Ishmael’s violent eviction may have had for Abraham. If God could support Sarah in evicting his other son, perhaps God could also reject Isaac? For a man whose life is built on chesed, the experience must have shocking, forcing him to question who or what he was. Is he truly a man of God? Is he really a good man? Or simply a man who loves parties? The midrashic sources frame this as an Adversary who provokes God to test Abraham or an inner turmoil of Abraham that leads him to test his faith — the nature of his connection to God.
Abraham’s journeys, the lack of a clear destination and Abraham’s self-construction of his path and his life, sets him up for a final crisis. What has been the real purpose of his life? Has he really been searching for God? At the end of this final trial he can answer, yes, because he is willing to give up everything that he has built, everything that has been born from him, for God.
But what about Sarah? Where is she in this trial and in her relationship with Abraham?