I Kings 1:1–31
“All you need is love … Love is all you need.” On the one hand, the Beatles make it sound so easy. Love is all you need, so just love. In practice, however, being in love, expressing our love, supporting one another through love, is far more challenging.
When it comes to our patriarch Abraham, talking about love seems out of place. Abraham is a complicated biblical figure. Whether it’s leaving his homeland on blind faith, bartering with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah, maintaining peace between his wife Sarah and his maidservant Hagar, banishing Hagar and Ishmael, or his obedience to God in binding Isaac to the altar, Abraham’s life is messy to the extreme. Yet, as much as we can learn from Abraham from his flaws and his unwavering faith in God, I think that Abraham may also be a character who is motivated by love.
Abraham, despite all the criticisms, is the first biblical character to experience the emotion of love, not once but twice. At the end of last week’s Torah portion, when God calls to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God says, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love …” (Genesis 22:2). It’s quite perplexing and even more disturbing that God, in asking Abraham to do such an outrageous act, would describe the relationship between father and son through love. The Torah goes out of its way to highlight this during this moment of vulnerability.
What makes this story more difficult is that as a consequence of the Binding of Isaac, there was an eternal severing of Abraham’s connection with his beloveds, both Isaac and Sarah. When Isaac narrowly escapes from the sword, the Torah tells us that Abraham came down from the mountain by himself with no mention of Isaac (Genesis 22:19). Furthermore, Isaac, Abraham and Sarah never speak again. It seems as though the love between father, mother and son has been forever lost.
Yet, Chayei Sarah, our Torah reading this week, describes two final acts performed by Abraham before his death. The first, as described in the opening verses, details Abraham’s commitment to bury his beloved Sarah; her death coming on the heels of the Binding of Isaac was perhaps caused by a broken heart, not knowing what happened to Isaac on the mountain. The second was Abraham’s desire to find Isaac a wife before he died. When Eliezer returns with Rebecca, the text tells us, “Isaac then brought her [Rebecca] into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death” (Genesis 24:66-67). Somehow, through Abraham’s orchestration, he was able to create a way for love to re-enter Isaac’s heart through Rebecca and, perhaps even more poignantly, give Isaac comfort in a time of grief. Through acts of love, love is felt once again.
The 19th-century scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, intrigued by Abraham’s final act resulting in Isaac’s ability to love again, wonders why the Torah tells us that Isaac first takes Rebecca as a wife and only then does it say that he loved her. We might, in a more modern context, think that love comes first followed by marriage. Hirsch explains that “however important it is that love precedes marriage, it is far more important that it should continue after marriage. The modern attitude lays all of the stress on the romance before marriage while the biblical view emphasizes the lifelong devotion and affection after marriage” (Hirsch on Genesis 24:67). Abraham wasn’t simply thinking about the love that used to be, but the love that is still possible, that can transcend for all time, even amid the messiness.
I think that one of the greatest legacies that Abraham left Isaac was not only the ability to love again, but that love can exist and even grow stronger after trauma and hardship. After Isaac was able to find love, we learn that at the end of Abraham’s life, “[He] breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented … His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah” (Genesis 25:8-9). Not only are both Isaac and Ishmael reunited in the act of kindness and love of burying their father, Abraham died content, fulfilled and complete, perhaps not only because he lived a full life, but because he left behind the greatest gift of all — love.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.