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“And It Came to Pass After These Things”: The Introduction to the Akeida

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
Translated by David Strauss
In memory of Rabbi Jack Sable z”l and
Ambassador Yehuda Avner z”l
by Debbi and David Sable
In memory of Rav Michael Bloom - "Mike"
on his first yahrzeit. יהי זכרו ברוך
Akiva and Shanen Werber and family
I. Introduction
And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Avraham, and said to him, “Avraham”; and he said, “Here am I.” And He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, even Yitzchak, and get you to the land of Moriya; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” (Bereishit 22:1-2) 
The story of the Akeida is puzzling. Why did God test Avraham with a test that is so far from expressing God's true demand of man? After all, we know that God does not demand human sacrifices, and even forbids the practice with a severe prohibition!
The opening words of the passage, "After these things," may provide an explanation of God's demand of Avraham. We will present two explanations of these words, which clarify the matter of the Akeida in light of its juxtaposition to the previous passage. 
II. The Covenant with Avimelekh
The Rashbam, who explains the Torah in accordance with its plain meaning, connects the story of the Akeida to the section that precedes it – the story of the covenant that Avraham entered into with Avimelekh:
Therefore that place was called Be'er-Sheva, because there they swore both of them. So they made a covenant at Be'er-Sheva; and Avimelekh rose up, and Fikhol the captain of his host, and they returned to the land of the Pelishtim. (Bereishit 21:31-32)
The Rashbam comments: 
"After these things" – that Avraham had made a covenant with Avimelekh, for himself, his son, and his grandson, and gave him seven ewes, and God became angry because of this, for the land of the Pelishtim is included within the borders of Israel, and God commanded about them: "You shall save alive nothing that breathes" (Devarim 20:17), and also in connection with Yehoshua they cast lots on the cities of the five lords of the Pelishtim. Therefore, "God tested Avraham" – He rebuked and vexed him…. That is to say, you took excessive pride in the son that I gave you and made a covenant between [all of] you and their [the Pelishtim's] descendants. Go now and offer him as a burnt-offering, and see what this making of a covenant has gained you. 
Afterwards, I found the same idea in Midrash Shemuel:
"The ark of the Lord remained in the land of the Pelishtim for seven months" (I Shemuel 6:1). It is written: "These seven ewes you shall take from me" (Bereishit 21:30). God said to him: You gave him seven ewes. By your life, his descendants will wage seven wars against your descendants and will defeat them. Another explanation: By your life, his descendants will kill these seven righteous ones among your descendants…Another explanation: By your life, his descendants will destroy these seven dwelling-places [of the Shekhina]…Another explanation: The ark wandered in the Pelishti territory for seven months…. (Rashbam, Bereishit 22:1)
The Rashbam follows the midrash, which criticizes Avraham for making a covenant with Avimelekh, thereby recognizing Avimelekh's right to continue living in the land of Israel. God saw the settlement of the nations of Canaan in the land as temporary settlement, and not as permanent settlement that the making of a covenant now made possible.
From the time of Yitzchak's birth, the promise made to Avraham that his descendants would inherit the land could be fulfilled. This was understood also by Avimelekh. Before Yitzchak was born, it was not important to make a covenant with Avraham, but with Yitzchak's birth Avraham became a permanent resident in the land, and his strength obligated Avimelekh to make a covenant with him and confirm it with an oath. God seriously disapproved of this covenant, and therefore asked Avraham to "return" his son, so to speak. A son was given to Avraham to inherit the land – not to make a covenant with those currently dwelling in it. 
The Rashbam understands "God tested Avraham" in the sense of punishment. The simple meaning of the words of the Rashbam is that God wished to "vex" Avraham and that this was his punishment, but from the outset He never intended to fulfill the punishment of binding Yitzchak and offering him as a burnt-offering.
In my opinion, however, it is difficult to say that God issues idle threats. It seems, therefore, that God did in fact decree that Avraham would end his life without progeny, and that He pardoned Avraham’s sin only when He saw his distress at the time of the Akeida. This forgiveness teaches future generations about the main role of the altar on Mount Moriya – achieving atonement for sin and enabling the attribute of mercy to overcome the attribute of justice.
III. The Sending Away of Yishmael
It is possible that, according to the plain meaning of the text, there is room to connect the story of the Akeida and its opening words to the section preceding the covenant made with Avimelekh – namely, the story of Yishmael's being sent away to the wilderness.[1] The two stories are similar in style and in content. The correspondence with regard to style is well known:
And Avraham arose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away; and she departed and strayed in the wilderness of Be'er-Sheva. (21:14) 
And Avraham arose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Yitzchak his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went to the place of which God had told him. (22:3)
 As for the content, in both stories God commands Avraham to do something contrary to his paternal conscience. It is stated with respect to Yishmael:
And the thing was very grievous in Avraham's sight on account of his son. And God said to Avraham, “Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of your bondwoman….” (21:11-12)
Similarly, the story of the Akeida presumably ran counter to Avraham's paternal conscience.
Moreover, in both incidents the boy reaches a situation of mortal danger: Yishmael, on account of thirst, and Yitzchak, on account of the knife being waved over his neck. At that time of danger, an angel appears to the parents (in the case of Yishmael, to Hagar, and in the case of Yitzchak, to Avraham), and instructs them how to save the child. In the wake of the angel's words, the eyes of the parents are opened: Hagar sees a well and gives the boy to drink, and Avraham sees a ram and offers it as a sacrifice in place of his son. The promises made by the angel in the two stories are also similar: 
And the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven… “Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast by your hand; for I will make him a great nation.” (21:17-18) 
And the angel of the Lord called to Avraham a second time out of heaven, and said: “By Myself have I sworn, says the Lord… that in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.” (22:15-17)
Finally, the story of Yishmael ends with: "And his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt," and the story of the Akeida ends with the birth of Rivka, who will eventually become Yitzchak's wife.
What does this juxtaposition come to teach us? Perhaps, it comes to teach us the shared destiny of Yishmael and Yitzchak. Chazal tell us that Yishmael repented of his evil ways:
"And Avraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. And Yitzchak and Yishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Makhpela…" (25:8-9).
"Yitzchak and Yishmael" – From here we learn that Yishmael repented [of his evil ways] and yielded the precedence to Yitzchak. This is what is meant by "good old age" mentioned in connection with Avraham. (Rashi, ad loc.)
Rashi addresses Yishmael's behavior during Avraham's funeral, but it seems that the main issue is Yishmael's very consent to participate in Avraham's burial alongside Sara in the Makhpela cave, and not alongside Hagar. On the other hand, Chazal expound: 
"He [Yitzchak] had just come from the Be'er-Lachai-Ro'i" (24:62) – For he had gone there to bring Hagar back to Avraham that he might take her again as his wife. (Rashi, 24:62)
That is to say, Yitzchak as well believes that Hagar is the fitting wife for Avraham after Sara's death. 
Indeed, unlike Yaakov and Esav, the ways of Yitzchak and Yishmael did not part:
And it came to pass after the death of Avraham that God blessed Yitzchak his son; and Yitzchak dwelt by Be'er-Lachai-Ro'i. (25:11).
Yitzchak goes to live in close proximity to Yishmael. This attests to reconciliation and love between them.
The partnership between Yitzchak and Yishmael in the wilderness might have been an economic partnership between Yitzchak, the successful farmer, who learned how to produce bread from the Negev lands, and Yishmael, whose "hand shall be against every man, and every man's hand against him" (16:12). Yishmael probably led the caravans transporting goods from country to country through the wilderness, as did the Yishmaelites who met Yosef's brothers, who transported spices from Gil'ad to Egypt. This is also what the Yishmaelite Nabataeans did many years later, in the days of the Second Temple, when they controlled all of the desert traffic and in that way turned into an economic power. 
We can also speak of a partnership of spiritual destiny between Yitzchak and Yishmael, stemming from what happened to both of them in our parasha. It is possible that the Torah alludes to the similarity between Yitzchak and Yishmael in the two goats of Yom Kippur: One goat is slaughtered for God and its blood is brought into the Holy of Holies, whereas the second goat is sent away "for Azazel to the wilderness." The goat that is slaughtered for God in the Temple corresponds to Yitzchak, who was almost slaughtered on Mount Moriya, while the goat that was sent away to the wilderness corresponds to Yishmael, who was similarly sent away to the wilderness.
Yitzchak's sons went their separate ways; one remained pure while the other became unclean. But the sons of Avraham did not separate in this manner: Both were goats for God, and there is a clear relationship between them. The one is a goat that remains in the mundane world and is sent off to the wilderness, while the other is a goat of sanctity, which achieves atonement in the Temple.

I  It is true that the immediately preceding section is the passage dealing with the covenant with Avimelekh, but we find a similar phenomenon later in the book of Bereishit. Chapter 37 deals with the sale of Yosef to Egypt, and its direct continuation is in chapter 39. Between the two is chapter 38, which deals with the story of Yehuda and Tamar, and it opens with the words, "And it came to pass at that time," as does the passage dealing with the covenant made with Avimelekh. Thus, in our parasha as well, we can say that the adjacent sections are those dealing with the sending away of Yishmael and the binding of Yitzchak, and between them is another section opening with the words, "And it came to pass at that time."