The liberation of laughter

The story begins, “And it came to pass, after these things,” a reference to the birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar from the household of Abraham and Sarah.

Sacrifice 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sacrifice 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The story begins, “And it came to pass, after these things,” a reference to everything that previously took place, most specifically the birth of Isaac (Yitzhak, he will laugh) and the expulsion of Ishmael (Yishmael, God will hear) and Hagar from the household of Abraham and Sarah.
Looking at these linked episodes, whether psychologically or spiritually, it becomes evident that a price must be paid. The expulsion, which was supposed to result in a return to domestic peace, leads instead to another crisis many years later.
What actually happens here? In what way is Abraham tested? First of all, his love for his stay-at-home son is tested. Second, his love for his wife is tested. And finally, his love for and devotion to God are tested. Did Abraham have the intestinal fortitude to carry out the extraordinary command?
What did the command consist of? God says, “Please take your son, your unique one, whom you love – yes, Isaac – and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there for an olah, a perfect offering, upon one of the mountains that I will direct you to.”
This order may not have been completely unexpected. Abraham was a prophet and a friend of God. He had a glimmer of insight into the workings of the Divine mind – more than any person then living. So one explanation for Abraham’s apparent willingness to carry out the command of God regarding his younger son is that he knew this was coming. He loved both his sons. If he had to let go of one, at Sarah’s demand, surely the other would not be allowed to stay safely at home, either. He and Sarah would certainly have to pay a price for Ishmael’s enforced departure.
As they proceed on their journey, Isaac asks his father about what seems to be missing – the olah, the dedicated offering, which he assumes must be a lamb. Abraham assures him: “God Himself will seek out the lamb for an offering, my son!” The text continues, “And the two of them walked on together.”
Many of our sages say that from this brief exchange Isaac knew that he was to be the olah, the offering. And he didn’t object. He trusted his father; he believed in God. He submitted to being bound and placed upon the wood on the altar – the wood that he himself had carried up the mountain and the altar which he had patiently (or with increasing anxiety) watched his father build – and awaited the knife stroke.
This is the climax of the story – but not the denouement.
Something happened that stayed Abraham’s hand. The Torah says it was an angel who called to him by name, “Avraham, Avraham!” Some say it was not an angel at all but a bat kol, a heavenly voice.
And whose voice could it have been? To whose voice would Abraham have listened? To Sarah. Yes, to Sarah, to whom God had insisted he listen when she told him to expel Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn.
Thus did Abraham pass the triple test. He confided the purpose of the journey to Isaac, who accepted it; he obeyed the word of God, who commanded him to prepare his son to be a burnt offering, an olah; and he heeded the voice of Sarah this second, even more crucial, time, and lowered the knife that he had raised.
The angel – whether employing Sarah’s voice or not – prevailed over Abraham’s determination, for his willpower was derived from and dependent upon God’s will.
And God gave him credit for coming this far and no further.
We see now how crucial Abraham’s sudden restraint was. For had he followed through with his intention and slain his son, he might indeed have seen the ram, but too late. Or he might have only heard it wrenching its horns free from the thicket and its hooves clip-clopping away while he himself stood in a place of desolation, with his dreams and the hopes of the world destroyed by his own hand.
Instead, a promise is given: “I will surely bless you and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the heaven and as the sand upon the seashore. They shall inherit the gate of their enemies, and through your descendants shall all the nations of the earth be blessed – because you have obeyed my voice.”
Abraham settles in Beersheba with his young men, but not with Sarah, whose funeral is the next major event in scripture, suggesting that her soul left her body in the course of her effort to prevent her husband from taking their son’s life. Nor with Isaac, whose individuation ceremony has strengthened his independence.
Near the end of the story the opening phrase recurs: “And it came to pass, after these things,” that Abraham receives a lengthy report, a family chronicle of births – and among the names on the list we hear the name of Rebecca, Isaac’s future wife, who will be the mother of Jacob and Esau, and who will engineer the transmission of the birthright blessing to Jacob, just as her deceased mother-in-law Sarah, whom she had never met but of whose deeds and reputation she had undoubtedly heard, had engineered the transmission of the blessing and birthright to her son, to Isaac.
For the laughter that she bore was bound and then unbound through her prescience and through her kol – her commanding and demanding voice, her pleading and prayerful voice.
Reuven Goldfarb lives in Safed and writes poetry, essays, fictionalized memoir and alternate reality fiction.