We know that God isn’t “up there” somewhere, but we still look up when beseeching God, still quote the Psalmist, “I lift my eyes up to the hills, from where does my help come?” Psalm 121
True to form, in this week’s Torah portion our Biblical ancestors do the same. Abraham looks up, and sees three men approaching his tent. They turn out to be angels, he rushes around to take care of them, and he receives a blessing. Hagar looks up and sees the well that will keep her child from dying of thirst, and Ishmael receives a blessing. And Abraham, about to sacrifice his son Isaac, looks up and sees a ram caught in the thicket that he can sacrifice instead, and he is blessed again.
There’s a fair amount of looking down as well, especially when it comes to the city of Sodom. But one person sees something without looking up or down – Sarah. The Bible tells us, “Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing [with Isaac.]” Genesis 21:9
Sarah jumps to the conclusion that Ishmael is tormenting his half-brother, her son. This leads to Ishmael and Hagar’s banishment to the desert and her unexpected discovery of the well.
But Sarah? She saw something that was neither good nor bad, that did not involve looking up or down. And because there was nothing obvious to guide her, she had to make a determination on her own. Were the two playing nicely? Or was Ishmael taunting Isaac, laughing at him?
It’s easy to know what’s right and wrong when there are clear signs pointing the way. Less easy when you’re on your own and the situation is murky. At those times, we make a judgement call and hope that we’re doing the right thing… and hope that we can fix things, if it turns out that we chose poorly.
I have sometimes wondered if this episode is why Sarah was absent from the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. That was Abraham’s test. This was Sarah’s test, seeing something without the help of outside guidance and making a choice. You can say she chose badly and failed. Or you can say that she chose correctly, but still failed.
I’m afraid that I can’t say that she passed the test, but that is not up to me to decide. Perhaps, like her foremother Eve who made a choice that changed history, Sarah was destined to send Ishmael and Hagar away. Perhaps this needed to happen for the story to continue. In that case, I hope that she too had a chance to look up, to see that she too was blessed.