The two major questions to be asked when reading this awe-ful story refer to the two "discussants," God and Abraham. How could the God who will reveal Himself to Moses as "the Lord of Love, the Lord of love, a God of compassion and freely given love, patient, filled with lovingkindness and truth" ask such a thing of the individual who "discovered" Him, and how could Abraham, who remonstrates with God on behalf of the wicked inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah ("Will the Judge of the entire earth not dispense justice?" Gen. 18:25) meekly accept a command that he murder his innocent son?
And to add to the difficulty, God has just taught humanity (in His covenant with Noah) that "he who sheds the blood of another will have his blood shed, since the human being was created in God's image" (Gen. 9:6), and promised Abraham eternal progeny, even guaranteeing that "through Isaac shall your progeny be called" (Gen. 21:12). The Divine command to sacrifice Isaac thus seems totally out of sync with the new, path-breaking religion founded by Abraham.
The answer is bound up with the need to understand the truly great person who was Sarah, our first Matriarch. After all, God commands Abraham "to listen well to every word that Sarah says" (ibid), which leads the Midrash to conclude that Sarah had greater prophetic powers than Abraham (Rashi ad loc). And, as my rebbe Rav J. B. Soloveitchik has noted, Abraham lived 38 years after Sarah died (when Sarah died, he was 137 and he lived to 175) - during which he remarried and had more sons and daughters, but was not visited even once by God in all that time. Moreover, the only thing the patriarch accomplished was the appointment of Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac; apparently he didn't even trust himself to make such a decision alone!
Bearing all this in mind, we must ask a final question: we shall read in next week's portion, "And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep over her" (Gen. 23:2). What was Sarah doing in Hebron? After the binding of Isaac, Abraham had returned to Beersheba, the family homestead after the treaty which the patriarch made with Abimelech (Genesis 21:32-34; ibid 22:19).
How come Sarah died in Hebron?
I would suggest that on the morning of the trip to Moriah, Abraham and Isaac's preparations must have wakened Sarah. "Where are you two going so early in the morning? And why the slaughterer's knife?" Abraham had no choice but to reveal to his faithful wife - the doting mother of Isaac - the Divine command. Sarah demands to hear God's precise words. "He didn't say that you should slaughter our child; He merely said to lift him up, to dedicate him to divine service. God could not possibly have commanded you to slaughter an innocent child!"
And indeed, Sarah was a greater prophet than Abraham. The sages of the Talmud cite a verse from Jeremiah where God says: "'I did not command, I did not speak and I did not imagine' I did not command Mesha the King of Moab to sacrifice his eldest son; I did not speak to Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter; I did not imagine Abraham taking Isaac to the binding" (B.T. Ta'anit 4a). Rashi bases himself on this talmudic passage when he comments that Abraham misunderstood the Divine charge; God wanted a committed Isaac, not a dead Isaac.
Why does Abraham misunderstand? Perhaps because he grew up in the shadow of the idol Moloch, in a pagan world which demanded child sacrifice. The Sefat Emet commentary of Rav Nahman of Bratzlav goes so far as to interpret a verse at the beginning of their journey, "And he [Abraham] saw God (makom, place, a synonym for God) from afar," as a hint that the patriarch was acting from the lesser place of Divine fear rather than the higher place of Divine love. Sarah understood.
Hence, when Abraham didn't listen to his wife and went to the "binding," Sarah went to Hebron, the burial place of Adam and Eve, to pray. She cried out to her forebears, Adam and Eve, who knew the pain of being bereft of a son. Sarah called out to God from Hebron, the place where her husband had received the Covenant between the Pieces, which guaranteed living progeny. And even if Abraham didn't listen to Sarah, God did; He stayed Abraham's hand.
But alas, Sarah herself died; the strain was simply too much for this dedicated mother to bear. But Isaac lives - and so does Jewish eternity.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.