Chaye Sarah relates the events of Abraham’s life that follow the akedah, the binding of Isaac. Sarah, Abraham’s wife of many years, dies and Abraham acquires a burial plot for her in the land of Cannan. Abraham then sends his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac, and, on the successful completion of the mission, Abraham remarries, fathers more children, and finally dies. In short, Abraham, in his twilight years, seems to lead a domestic, almost mundane, existence. The post-akedah Abraham leads an entirely different life from the pre-akedah Abraham! No more building altars and calling in the name of God, no more battles against kings, no more arguing with God or being tested by God, just a simple, quite, at-home existence. How are we to understand this profound change?
The most obvious explanation is, simply, that Abraham was getting older. Lacking the energy that he had in his earlier years, he laid the groundwork for his son Isaac to continue after him, while cutting back on his more public role. However, this answer fails to satisfy for two reasons. First of all, such a drastic curtailment seems totally out of character for Abraham, a man whose very essence was devoted to God and to spreading the word of God. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the choosing of a quieter lifestyle was not merely Abraham’s decision. God, to a certain degree, imposed this lifestyle on Abraham. For after the event of the akedah, God never speaks to Abraham again. After passing the most difficult test, after demonstrating his unflinching devotion and dedication to God, Abraham’s “reward” is to never again experience divine revelation! How can this be a fitting denouement to the climactic akedah?
Perhaps one way to look at God’s silence is to see it as a way of testing Abraham. The rabbis teach us in Ethics of the Fathers that God tested Abraham with ten tests. Most commentators explain that the akedah was the tenth, and final, test. But Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona, a great 13th century commentator and moralist, writes that the akedah was the ninth test. Abraham still had one more test to pass after the akedah, and that was to see if he would be steadfast in his faith even when God seemed absent. Confronted with the need to bury Sarah, Abraham had to enter into negotiations with the Hittites, until he could finally procure a burial plot. Would he question God’s promise to him that the land would be his – a promise that was now seeming to be negated – and demand that God act on his behalf, or would he do what he had to do, all the while continuing to believe that the promise would somehow, sometime, eventually be fulfilled? This was the final test: could Abraham, after living a life filled with divine revelation and divine challenge now live a quiet, mundane life in an equally religious and God-oriented way?
This tenth test of Abraham is one that confronts us all regularly. Many of us long for the earlier tests of Abraham. If only God would call upon us, “Go from your father’s house…to the land that I will show you,” our path would be clear. We would overcome all obstacles, persevere through hardship, in order to serve our Maker. The problem is that God has not called us. We have had no divine revelation, no obvious tests. We, like Abraham in his later years, have only promises from the past, revelations from the past, miracles from the past. Our challenge, perhaps the hardest challenge, is to see whether we can lead a Godly life when God is silent. Will we continue to have faith in those promises, although their fulfillment seems improbable? Will we continue to have a relationship with God although He no longer talks to us directly? Can we continue to draw on our past experiences, or the experiences of past generations, to give us the strength and faith for the present and the hope for the future? These are the questions that all of struggle with on a daily basis. We can only pray that, like Abraham, we should find that strength to continue with our divine mission, to live a Godly life, to serve God in the twilight years.