Rabbi Ira J. Dounn
Have you heard of the Sacrifice of Sarah? No, you probably haven’t, because it isn’t recorded in the Torah.
We often think that the Binding of Isaac episode had a happy ending. Even though G-d commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, G-d stops Abraham from going through with it and Abraham sacrifices the ram instead.
But the story immediately following the Binding of Isaac is of the death of Sarah. How did Sarah pass away? The Torah doesn’t give us the details, so the rabbinical exegetical tradition (the midrash) tries to fill in the gap:
“The account of Sarah’s demise was juxtaposed to the binding of Isaac because as a result of the news of the Binding of Isaac (that her son was prepared for slaughter and was nearly slaughtered), her soul flew out of her and she died” (Genesis Rabbah 58:5).
It turns out that Isaac wasn’t the primary victim of the Binding – Sarah was. This was the sacrifice of Sarah.
Do you think Abraham told Sarah what he was going to do – did he tell her about G-d’s commandment? How could he have kept this enormous secret from her and not told her?
Do you think she died because she was exceedingly distressed that her husband would sacrifice their only child? It’s plausible that the immense sadness and grief that Sarah experienced was just too much to bear. According to this read, Sarah died from heartbreak and grief.
Do you think she died because, like so many mothers, she would have rather died to protect her child and prevent her child from dying? Like Lily Potter protecting Harry Potter with motherly love, perhaps this is Sarah’s way of intervening in her son’s sacrifice. According to this read, Sarah died to protect Isaac.
Do you think she died to be the replacement sacrifice for G-d, instead of Isaac? Maybe it was only after Sarah died that G-d’s angel came down to stop Abraham from completing the deed. We don’t know what Sarah was experiencing when her husband and her son were journeying to Mt. Moriah. Imagining that she was having her own spiritual experience with G-d, it is not inconceivable that G-d also told her what was happening, and Sarah said, “Take me instead!” According to this read, Sarah died to replace Isaac.
Do you think she died to have a more direct opportunity to castigate G-d for commanding her husband to do such an immoral and unG-dly act? It would be hard to blame Sarah for feeling livid that G-d would ask such a thing of Abraham and Sarah, after years of promising them descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. How could G-d do such a thing?! Maybe it was an expression of moral outrage and protest that took Sarah from this world? According to this read, Sarah died from anger.
It’s not clear how or why Sarah died. But it seems crystal clear that Sarah was the victim, and she doesn’t even get acknowledged for it. How come this central Biblical story remains the Binding of Isaac, and not the Sacrifice of Sarah?!
It is also clear and even more tragic that women continue to be the victims in our world today.
As we continue to hear allegations and confirmations of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the news, the Torah portions continue to give examples of injustices against women too. As if chiming in with Divine authority or the gravity of human history, the Torah responds: Me too.
Let the Biblical examples of violence against women be a reminder to us that injustice against women is intolerable and heinous. All of humanity ought to resolve to stand up against injustice of any kind, including injustice against women, and to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.
Will you stand up for the Sarahs, and all the victims of injustice, today? Or will you stand idly by as our society continues to fail to acknowledge the real sacrifices happening right in front of us?
Rabbi Ira J. Dounn is Senior Jewish Educator at the Center for Jewish Life — Princeton Hillel, Princeton University.