Did Abraham pass the test?

It is thus puzzling that in the aftermath of the Akeda, God never seems to appear to Abraham again.

'The Sacrifice' of Isaac’ by Caravaggio. The author says the akeda is the supreme test of faith, and shows how man can push himself to the limit  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
'The Sacrifice' of Isaac’ by Caravaggio. The author says the akeda is the supreme test of faith, and shows how man can push himself to the limit
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In this week’s Torah portion, Hayei Sarah, the ramifications of the Akeda continue to reverberate. Instead of perceiving it as the ultimate sign of religious devotion, I want to question whether it was a successful end to the task set out by God. A careful reading of the text hints at an irreparable rupture with Isaac, Sarah and even God! While Abraham proves unwavering in his piety, it is unclear whether such dedication was the purpose of the trial.
For one thing, God and Abraham have no further dialogue, even in the immediate aftermath of the event. In contrast, in the opening of the chapter, God appears to Abraham in order to test him. It is He who issues the command. It is thus surprising that God Himself does not come to stay Abraham’s hand but rather sends an angel, an emissary, to stop the act and promise blessing in return for his faith. This seems disappointing for a man who has had direct conversations with God from the opening of Lech Lecha onward.
One of the most intimate vignettes is described at the beginning of Chapter 18, when God appears before Abraham seemingly for no particular reason. A midrashic interpretation beautifully describes God as fulfilling the mitzva of visiting the sick in this scene, since the prior chapter describes Abraham undergoing circumcision at the age of 99. The two are interrupted by the three men coming to herald the birth of Isaac. When they depart, God and Abraham resume their conversation, this time about the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues in favor of sparing Sodom but in the end recognizes that God’s justice must prevail. In a later chapter, Abraham shows displeasure when Sarah insists that he send his son Ishmael away. God reassures him that all will be well with Ishmael and he, too, will be blessed.
It is thus puzzling that in the aftermath of the Akeda, God never seems to appear to Abraham again. Was he meant to show such passive, unquestioning devotion or should he have fought with God to protest a fundamentally immoral task? There are no more tests by God, but there are also no more casual visits from God to Abraham’s tent in the heat of the day.
MODERN SCHOLARSHIP has chosen to look at the sending away of Ishmael as an early precursor to the Akeda. For both stories, “the central issue,” as biblical scholar Jon Levenson puts it, “is whether the first-born son of Abraham will survive the ordeal into which he has been placed by a father pre-eminently obedient to God’s command.” One major difference between the two stories is that Hagar lifts up her voice and cries when she sees the imminent death of her child. Abraham, in stark contrast, remains silent. To quote Bible scholar Aaron Koller, “this suggests that Abraham was pious, but not perfect, in the Akeda.”
In a piyyut [liturgical poem] by R. El‘azar b. R. Qillir (c. 500 CE, Byzantine Eretz Israel), the lack of compassion for Isaac by Abraham is critiqued directly. Built around the idea that God had to wait until Moses was born to give the Torah, the author traces the flaws from each generation that cause God to wait. When it comes to Abraham, his devotion to monotheism and fidelity to God is acknowledged, but his candidacy as the one to receive Torah is rejected:
“He became great, and his reputation spread throughout the land/ But he forgot how a father is supposed to have mercy on children/ A prayer or plea he should have offered!”
One could understand this to mean that while Abraham did “pass’ the test, it was not optimally what God was hoping for and it fundamentally changes their relationship. As a result, he was not a worthy candidate for transmitting Torah into the world.
CIRCLING BACK to this week’s Torah portion, other cracks appear. In the aftermath of the Akeda, Sarah dies in Kiryat Arba while Abraham is in Beersheba and Isaac is notably absent both during his mother’s death and burial and his father’s mission to find him a wife.
Isaac is actually not mentioned in the second half of the Akedah at all. The text that gave us so much detail regarding the preparation for the trial tells us nothing about Isaac climbing down from the altar or participating in the sacrifice of the ram or even bringing his own sacrifice in gratitude for his life returned. Abraham and Isaac do not engage in dialogue again. Abraham returns to the lads that he left waiting with the donkeys alone. Isaac is nowhere to be seen. We hear nothing of him until he is described returning from the vicinity of Beer L’hai Roi and is seen by Rebecca walking in the field at dusk, suggesting some sort of meditative or spiritual experience. Be’er L’hai Roi is not a random place. It is the spot where Hagar, the maidservant of Sarah and the concubine of Abraham, had a visitation from an angel promising her the birth of Ishmael after she unhappily ran away. Isaac poignantly ends up in the desert, closest to Ishmael his brother who was sent away! At the end this week’s Torah portion, Isaac and Ishmael, half-brothers who were forcibly separated, come together to bury their father, hinting at an ongoing connection between the two. Perhaps the reconnection took place while Isaac was in the area of Be’er L’hai Roi, in the period of time after the Akeda.
The family, so united in joy and laughter after his birth, has fallen apart, scattered, separate, each person alone. Isaac finds comfort only when he brings Rebecca into his mother’s tent, beginning a new chapter toward the creation of his own family.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.