The near-sacrifice of Isaac, Sarah’s victory at the altar…and a look at angels and free will
ילקוט בראשית: פרק כג – המשך רמז קב – ע’ נמי בראשית רבה, פרשה נ”ו, סימן ד
ויבא אברהם לספוד לשרה כששב אברהם מהר המוריה בשלום חרה אפו של סמאל שראה שלא עלתה בידו תאות לבו לבטל קרבנו של אברהם מה עשה הלך ואמר לשרה לא שמעת מה נעשה בעולם אמרה ליה לאו אמר לה לקח אברהם את יצחק בנך ושחטו והקריבו על עולת מוקדה התחילה בוכה ומיללת שלש בכיות כנגד שלש תקיעות שלש יללות כנגד שלש יבבות ופרחה נשמתה ומתה. ויבא אברהם מהיכן בא מהר המוריה בא:
And Abraham came to eulogize Sarah – When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah in peace Samael was upset as he saw that he was kept from his heart’s desire: to prevent Abraham from offering Isaac upon the altar. What did he do? He went and said to Sarah: “Have you not heard what has been going on in the world?” She said to him, “No.” He said to her “Abraham took Isaac your son, slaughtered him and brought him as a burnt offering.” She began to cry and she sobbed three cries (tekiyos) and three sobs (yevavos), her soul flew up and she died.
Reading this midrash as a literal account of events surrounding Isaac’s sacrifice (known as “the akeida” – see Gen. 22:9) will not only rob it of its true depth, but would actually present serious theological problems. Why, for instance, was Samael (who would seem to be synonymous with Satan) permitted to take personal revenge from Abraham by causing Sarah’s death? And what exactly is Samael? Is he a kind of angel? Does he have free will? Why should he have any personal feelings towards Abraham and Sarah? Why did he want to prevent Abraham’s offering?
Not that the only problems with this midrash are theological.. .
Why is specifically Abraham described as returning in peace? What about Isaac? Wasn’t his life in greater peril than his father’s (after all, wasn’t Abraham the one holding the knife)?
What is the significance of Sarah’s three cries and three sobs and for what purpose are they so obviously made to evoke the various times that the Torah requires we blow the shofar (see, for example, Lev. 23:24, 25:9, Num. 10:5-6 and 31:6)?
Why did Sarah’s soul “fly up” upon her death – which, if we take matters at their face value, was the result of a misunderstanding?
Although we’ll have more on this subject later on, let’s say for now that Samael was in fact acting as God’s loyal servant. In that context, we will have to assume that it was God’s will that Samael should seek to prevent Abraham’s offering and similarly that Sarah should be given such difficult (if inaccurate) news.
Let’s examine Abraham’s return from Mt. Moriah. Since he himself was never really in the kind of physical danger that requires “peace” as a solution, the midrash is most likely referring to some spiritual problem – the resolution to which is Abraham’s sense of “peace” with God. Perhaps, despite having come so close to killing his son, no trace of resentment marred the deep love he held for his Master. Offering a ram in place of Isaac would thus demonstrate just that love for God and perfect willingness to follow His will…despite how inscrutable it might sometimes seem. Couldn’t, therefore, a test of Abraham’s complete loyalty be colorfully and powerfully described in terms of an inner conflict over whether or not to bring the replacement offering?
So that takes care of Abraham’s struggle and victory. But what about Sarah? What role did she play in the story of a young man who was, after all, her son too? It surely stands to reason that God expected something great from her as well, but we don’t see any midrash that actually discusses it.
Until now. I believe that our midrash is, in fact, primarily about Sarah and the way she reacted to the akeida. It’s not unreasonable to assume that her first thought on hearing of Isaac’s “sacrifice” was to question everything that she had always assumed about the immorality of human sacrifice. Then, at the height of her shock and numbing loss, Sarah’s carefully developed self discipline took over.
“Who was responsible for this?” she might have asked herself. “It must have been Abraham. And I know that he would never have done such a thing without first hearing God’s explicit instruction. So whatever happened, it was justified. I must therefore conclude that until now I have been making a mistake: there must indeed be at least some circumstances which justify human sacrifice. If God wants it, than I must humbly follow.”
It’s all very nice to speculate – there’s no end of possible scenarios one could arbitrarily impose onto a midrash – but what is it about the words themselves that actually hints to such a “conversation”? Shouldn’t we first give the midrash a chance to speak to us on its own terms?
Which brings us back to the business of shofar blasts. I can’t help thinking that walking away from this midrash with the impression that Sarah’s sobs literally sounded just like shofar isn’t just shallow and meaningless, it’s rude. Even if she really did have a bizarre voice, why bother preserving that odd piece of information for the ages? Such an obvious literary reference to the various Torah commandments which employ the “teruah” call begs us to draw a comparison. But to what?
The Torah requires the teruah sound on three separate instances: the shofar blowing of Rosh Hashana (Lev. 23:21), the call for freedom on the fiftieth year of the Jubilee cycle (Lev. 25:10) and, throughout our nation’s forty years in the wilderness, when we were to assemble or prepare to break camp and move on (Num. 10:5). What they all share in common is that the sound is to inspire a change in behavior (economic behavior at Jubilee – when fields returned to their ancestral owners – the need to give up our very homes when called to move on in the wilderness and, following a personal accounting, our social and religious behavior at Rosh Hashana – see Rabbi S.R. Hirsch’s commentary to Lev. 23:24).
Here’s how I see it. As we saw above, Sarah, based purely on the information she’d been given, concluded that her life-long attitudes towards the sanctity of human life must somehow have been wrong. This would require she reassess everything. How better to express that process than through three even blasts of the shofar (“tekiyos” which, according to Rabbi Hirsch tell us to break from the rhythms of our daily lives and begin the process of self-analysis). Sarah thought things through and concluded that, no matter how little she actually understood it, if this new idea was really God’s will, then she would follow it wherever it might lead. And how better to express that than through three “teruos” (which, according to Rabbi Hirsch, represent our moving forward along the new moral path that our analysis has shown us).
Then Sarah died. She didn’t drop dead from shock (in which case “her soul flew up” would indeed seem strange), but gracefully and triumphantly ascended to Heaven having completed her earthly mission and having passed her final test! Even if It was all based on Samael’s dark lie, given what she knew, Sarah reacted exactly as she should.
Just what do we know about Samael?
The angel Samael, the evil one, is head of all the Satans. At every moment he would discuss Moses’ death, saying: “When will that moment arrive so I may descend and take his soul from him?” And about him David wrote (Tehilim 37) “The evil one gazes at the righteous and seeks to kill him.” We can prove that this verse refers to these two individuals as, among all the Satans there is none more evil than Samael and among all the prophets there is none as righteous as Moses, as it says “No prophet will ever arise in Israel like Moses who knows God face to face.” (Deut. Rabba, Zos Habracha)
In a similar vein, the Talmud (Sotah 10b) recounts the fateful courtroom confrontation between Yehuda and his former daughter-in-law (Gen. 38:25) in which Tamar courageously sought to protect Yehuda’s dignity. Nevertheless, in a desperate final attempt to save her own life, she tried to show him some items of his that fell into her possession:
Rabbi Elazer said: once the identifying items were found, Samael came and pushed them away (from Yehuda). Gabriel came and brought them closer.
For Samael – who is often portrayed as the heavenly minister of Edom – came and pushed them away so that she (Tamar) should be executed for the adultery she was assumed to have committed, and the King David who would defeat Edom at the Melech Valley would not (be born). (Rashi)
Rambam (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 2:30):
It should be clear to you how Samael is the Satan and this name too is a description rather than a proper name.
This characterization (in the Midrash Rabba quoted just above) of Samael as “the evil one” and (in Talmud Sotah) of being eager to have Tamar burnt leaves us with a strong sense that he takes his job a bit too seriously and that he might not be an entirely loyal servant of God.
Is such a thing possible?
Acher (the nickname of the troubled sage, Elisha ben Avuya) abandoned Judaism…What was it that turned him away? He saw that Matatron (a heavenly angel) was given permission to sit and record the Jewish people’s merits. (Acher) said: “I have a tradition that there is no sitting…in heaven. One might wrongly conclude that there are two powers” (i.e., that Matatron sat in rebellion against God). Sixty flaming staffs emerged and struck Matatron…” (Chagiga 15a)
Sixty flaming staffs emerged and struck – There certainly could have been no legal claim against Matatron (who, it would seem, has no free will). Rather, the entire event was staged to show Elisha that there is a Master over Matatron. (Rabbainu Chananel)
At least as far as Matatron goes, Rabbainu Chananel clearly rejects the possibility of any personal interest, and thus personal liability. Rabbi E.E. Dessler, in Michtav M’Eliyahu (Vol II, page 214) quotes Rabbainu Chananel but extends his position to include any reference ascribing free will to any angel.
The Satan and the nations of the world challenge the Jews saying “What are these commandments (i.e., those that the human mind would not naturally have adopted on its own)?” Therefore the Torah describes those commandments as “chuka” – as though to say “I consider it a Royal decree and you have no permission to second guess it.” (Rashi to Numbers 19:2)
Rashi’s position here is similar to the Talmud Yoma 67b, but with one crucial difference: the Talmud ascribes the attack only to the Satan, and not the nations (Rashi, as he often does, based his words on a separate midrash that made his point more precisely). According to the Talmud’s approach, one could say that the Satan, acting purely as God’s agent, is simply “attacking” us to inspire us to rise to the Torah’s defense.
However right now it is specifically Rashi’s version with which we’re concerned. Rashi did refer to the nations and any criticism that they might level against certain commandments would most certainly be intrinsically hostile. In other words, they’re not doing it to provoke the Jews to repent and improve, but for personal reasons of some sort. And since Rashi’s version of the account equates Satan’s actions with those of the nations, we must assume that the Satan himself is driven by equally personal considerations.
Or, in other words, free will.
Thus, Rashi’s position would seem distinct from that of Rabbainu Chananel/Rabbi Dessler. Which brings us to Rambam, who, as is often the case, appears a bit more complicated. In his Guide for the Perplexed (2:6), Rambam explains that many natural forces and even physical bodies (like the spheres and planets) are creations we might call angels – in that they are used by God to carry out His will. In the next chapter, he writes that these forces and bodies are self-conscious, aware of the purpose and affect of their actions and enjoy free will (see also Yesodai HaTorah 3:9), although of a kind more limited than ours.
However (as he writes Guide for the Perplexed 3:22), Rambam draws an important distinction between “regular” angels and Satan. Here are his words:
ואחר כך הזכיר כי השטן הזה הוא משוטט בארץ ומתהלך בה, ואין בינו לבין העליונים יחס כלל, ואין לו שם שוטטות. הוא אמרו ‘משוט בארץ ומהתהלך בה’, אין התהלכותו ושוטטותו כי אם בארץ. ואחר כך אמר כי זה הישר התם נמסר ביד השטן הזה, ושכל מה שחל בו מן הפגעים ברכושו ובניו וגופו הייתה סבתו השטן ומפי’ אפודי “ר”ל שאין לשטן כח בענינים רוחניים כי אינם מקבלים הפסד והעדר…אבל (באמת) השטן בלתי מכוון”
Which I believe can be paraphrased thus:
In the process of explaining Job’s suffering and struggle to understand it, Rambam notes that the Satan – the one immediately responsible for what happened to Job – is described differently than the bnei Elokim (see, for instance, Job 1:6). Examining the text, Rambam seems to conclude that Satan’s role (which is synonymous with that of both the angel of death and the evil inclination) exists only in the vacuum created when God chooses to “pull back” from certain lower worldly affairs.
Therefore, according to Rambam, the answer to Job’s question (“why is God doing this to me if I don’t deserve it?”) is that it isn’t strictly speaking God doing it at all. While of course God set limits beyond which the Satan may not go (see Job 1:12), He wasn’t directly involved in the methods and tone and the Satan is free to choose his own .
So according to Rambam, the Satan may certainly not act in opposition to God Himself, but he is given the free will and precisely defined space to act creatively and forcefully, using his own “personality.” And thus, it would seem, he can at least appear to be acting on his own agenda.