This website is made possible by generous donations from users just like you. $18 helps keep JWA online for one day. Please consider making a gift to JWA today!
Close [x]

You are here

Share Share Share Share Share Share Share

Sarah's Sacrifice

One of the most famous stories in Genesis is the Binding of Isaac by his father Abraham (the Akeidah, in Hebrew). Sarah, Isaac’s mother, is noticeably absent from the text. Here we consider Sarah’s perspective, and how this foundational event in the Jewish origin story might have affected her.

Overview

Enduring Understandings

  • Even though Sarah is absent from the story of the Akeidah (Binding of Isaac) in the Torah, her role is still critical, and it’s up to us to fill in the gaps in the text
  • Other people’s decisions can have a huge impact on our own lives
  • Creating art about women in Torah continues the millennia-old tradition of interpretation, while bringing female characters to the center of the process

Essential Questions

  • What conclusions or insights can we draw from the fact that Sarah’s death occurs right after the Akeidah?
  • How does Alicia’s song contribute to our understanding of Sarah’s story?
  • Why is it important to consider Sarah’s role in the Akeidah even though she is absent from the text?

Notes to Teacher

We encourage you to make this curriculum your own. For instance, if there isn’t time during your class period to have students sketch out their own creative interpretations, you can either leave this part out or treat it as an extension activity.

We also encourage you to include as much hevruta (partner) study as possible. If you are new to hevruta study, you can think of it as discussion between two partners who can help each other learn by challenging each other’s first impressions. Breaking the group into pairs and having them read texts out loud, rather than silently, is an essential part of hevruta study.

Lastly, when studying the Torah text, we find it helpful to have students identify every problem, difficulty, or moment of confusion they can find in the text, as if they were on a scavenger hunt. This opens up the door to midrash, the Jewish tradition of creative Torah interpretation, which imagines answers to those questions.

Introductory Essay(s)

River So Wide: Explanation of a Musical Midrash

by Alicia Jo Rabins

I play a variety of genres of music, ranging from American folk to indie rock to klezmer to classical, and so part of my songwriting process for Girls in Trouble is deciding which genre best fits each song.

Because this song is a dark, gothic, narrative take on a dark, gothic midrash on a dark, gothic story, I immediately thought of Southern bluegrass ballads, especially murder ballads. These songs often use folk instruments with bright sounds - trebly guitar, soloing mandolin - to tell profoundly troubling stories of murder and betrayal which create catharsis in the listener.

But let me back up. Long before I began Girls in Trouble, I fell in love with Leonard Cohen’s song, “The Story of Isaac.” (If you don’t know the song, it’s a beautiful and dramatic modern musical midrash about the Binding of Isaac, well worth listening to.) I appreciated how this song re-imagined the story from Isaac’s perspective.

What I had never considered, though, was Sarah’s experience of Isaac’s near-sacrifice. Years later I began to study Jewish texts, and learned that although I had never thought to consider the story from Sarah’s point of view, the Rabbis themselves had asked this question.

The Torah tells us a great deal about Sarah’s relationship with Isaac; her process of conceiving, weaning, and caring for Isaac during his youth get a lot of airtime in Genesis. But Sarah is almost entirely absent from the Torah in this, the most important and traumatic episode of her son’s life. And, as the ancient Rabbis note, the next thing that happens in the Torah is that she dies.

Following their interpretive principle that there are no accidents in the Torah, the Rabbis propose midrashic answers to how Isaac’s near-sacrifice could have led to Sarah’s death. In this song, I retell the midrash which I find most compelling: she died, essentially, of heartbreak after learning that her husband was willing to sacrifice their son.

In effect, this song is a midrash on a midrash. In the Rabbis’ imagination, Satan - a rabbinic trickster figure who is always trying to dissuade people from having faith in God - shows Sarah a vision of what is happening up on the mountain. (I always imagine this as a Star Wars-like projection in the air, a “Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi” moment.) To support his case against God, Satan stops the vision before the dramatic rescue of Isaac. And Sarah perishes from grief.

In writing this song, I chose to stay fairly close to the midrash. I wanted to explore more fully what Sarah might have felt during this terrible moment. I chose not to write about Sarah’s relationship with God, but instead to focus on her grief for her son, and her anger at her husband. Sarah flashes back to Isaac’s miraculous conception, and bitterly remembers her years of faithfulness to Abraham.

Like the midrash, my song also ends with Sarah’s death, but with a twist. In my interpretation, Sarah decides to die not as a passive result of grief, but as an active attempt to be present for her son on “the other side.” She won’t leave him alone in death; instead, she will be waiting to welcome him. The dark irony is that, of course, he has not actually died, but I still felt like this honored her grief with an act of love rather than simply despair.

As dark as this song is, I wrote it - and sing it - with a spirit of hope. As in those bluegrass ballads I’m drawing on, the point is not to wallow in tragedy, but to feel catharsis: to enter into this tragic, archetypal story, to open our hearts to the fact of human suffering, and in so doing, to relieve a bit of our own pain.

Lesson Plan

Intro

Invite students to introduce themselves and to share a time when someone else’s decision had a major impact on their life.

Core Text

  • Introduce hevruta, divide class, pass out source sheets
  • Hevrutas read source text to each other and explore discussion questions (Note: Unless students are already familiar with Sarah’s story, they should read “Sarah’s Backstory” at the top of the page before reading the biblical text. For a more in-depth introduction, they can read JWA’s encyclopedia article about Sarah.)
  • Come back together to discuss what arose in hevruta. Begin by inviting students to share their most interesting questions and listing them on the board. Explain that finding unanswered questions in the text is the starting point of midrash (interpretation of Torah).
  • If you find that students are eager to debate about answers to their questions, this can lead to great discussion, but remind them that the Jewish interpretative tradition allows for multiple answers to a single question.

Song

  • Listen to “River So Wide” with lyrics
  • Discuss questions as a group

Create Your Own Midrash

  • Time for individual brainstorming/freewriting/drawing with “Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations”
  • If time, opportunity to share creative responses. Students should resist the temptation to critique others’ responses.
  • Share students’ midrashim by adding them to the Gallery of Biblical Women on the Girls in Trouble website

Document Studies

Song Recording

Song Recording

River So Wide

Full image
Audio recording of Alicia Jo Rabins' song, "River So Wide."

Biblical text with discussion questions

Biblical text with discussion questions

Sarah’s Backstory

Sarah is the wife of Abraham, who is generally considered the first “Hebrew” (what we would call a Jew). God promises that Abraham’s offspring will be more numerous than the stars and sand, but Abraham and Sarah are very old and still childless, though Abraham has a son named Ishmael with his second wife, Hagar.

Then one day, three messengers (angels, or men, depending on the interpretation) arrive at Abraham and Sarah’s tent. They announce that Sarah will bear a child the next year. Sarah laughs, saying that it’s too late for her - but she miraculously becomes pregnant and gives birth, the next year, to Isaac.

Sarah’s relationship to Hagar and Ishmael remains fraught throughout their time in the household together. One day, angry at Ishmael’s behavior at Isaac’s weaning-feast, Sarah banishes them to the wilderness.

The following episode happens a number of years later (interpretations differ on exactly how many years.) Jews often refer to the story we are about to read as the Akeidah, the “Binding” of Isaac.

Genesis 22:1-19, 23:1-2

1 Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. God said to him, "Abraham," and he answered, "Here I am." 2 And God said, "Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will point out to you." 3 So early next morning, Abraham saddled his donkey and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to his servants, "You stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you."

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He himself took the firestone and the knife; and the two walked off together. 7 Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he answered, "Yes, my son." And he said, "Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?" 8 And Abraham said, "God will see to the sheep for God’s burnt offering, my son." And the two of them walked on together.

9 They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. 11 Then an angel of God called to him from heaven: "Abraham! Abraham!" And he answered, "Here I am." 12 And he said, "Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me." 13 When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, whence the present saying, "On the mount of God there is vision."

15 The angel of God called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, "By Myself I swear, God declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, 17 I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. 18 All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command." 19 Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba; and Abraham stayed in Beer-sheba. 

Chapter 23

1 Sarah's lifetime—the span of Sarah's life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. 2 Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.

Translation: JPS, edited

בראשית כב:א-יט, כג:א-ב 1 וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלֹהִים נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי: 2 וַיֹּאמֶר קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ אֶת-יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ-לְךָ אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ: 3 וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת-חֲמֹרוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת-שְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו אִתּוֹ וְאֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ וַיְבַקַּע עֲצֵי עֹלָה וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלֶךְ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-אָמַר-לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים: 4 בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק: 5 וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו שְׁבוּ-לָכֶם פֹּה עִם-הַחֲמוֹר וַאֲנִי וְהַנַּעַר נֵלְכָה עַד-כֹּה וְנִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה וְנָשׁוּבָה אֲלֵיכֶם: 6 וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֲצֵי הָעֹלָה וַיָּשֶׂם עַל-יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ וַיִּקַּח בְּיָדוֹ אֶת-הָאֵשׁ וְאֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו: 7 וַיֹּאמֶר יִצְחָק אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּנִּי בְנִי וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה הָאֵשׁ וְהָעֵצִים וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה: 8 וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהִים יִרְאֶה-לּוֹ הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה בְּנִי וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו: 9 וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר-לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּבֶן שָׁם אַבְרָהָם אֶת-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וַיַּעֲרֹךְ אֶת-הָעֵצִים וַיַּעֲקֹד אֶת-יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתוֹ עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ מִמַּעַל לָעֵצִים: 10 וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת לִשְׁחֹט אֶת-בְּנוֹ: 11 וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו מַלְאַךְ יְקֹוָק מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי: 12 וַיֹּאמֶר אַל-תִּשְׁלַח יָדְךָ אֶל-הַנַּעַר וְאַל-תַּעַשׂ לוֹ מְאוּמָה כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי כִּי-יְרֵא אֱלֹהִים אַתָּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ מִמֶּנִּי: 13 וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה-אַיִל אַחַר נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָאַיִל וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ: 14 וַיִּקְרָא אַבְרָהָם שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא יְקֹוָק יִרְאֶה אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמֵר הַיּוֹם בְּהַר יְקֹוָק יֵרָאֶה: 15 וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ יְקֹוָק אֶל-אַבְרָהָם שֵׁנִית מִן-הַשָּׁמָיִם: 16 וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי נְאֻם-יְקֹוָק כִּי יַעַן אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה וְלֹא חָשַׂכְתָּ אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידֶךָ: 17 כִּי-בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וְכַחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל-שְׂפַת הַיָּם וְיִרַשׁ זַרְעֲךָ אֵת שַׁעַר אֹיְבָיו: 18 וְהִתְבָּרֲכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלִי: 19 וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו אֶל-בְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע: 1 וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה: 2 וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ:

Questions for discussion

  1. Why do you think Sarah is absent from this story?
  2. Why do you think Sarah’s death immediately follows the Binding of Isaac in the Torah’s chronology?
  3. Do you think Sarah knew about this episode? If so, what do you imagine her thinking and feeling during the story?

Song lyrics with discussion questions

Song lyrics with discussion questions

River So Wide

A song in Sarah’s voice, by Girls in Trouble/Alicia Jo Rabins

I went down to the river so wide
Satan was standing on the other side
He said to me, look and see
I saw you with our only child
With a knife in your hand and your eyes so wild
On the mountaintop, and then the vision stopped
Oh…

My love, my love, what have you done
And where have you taken my only son
Some terrible place where I can’t see his face
All these years I’ve been a faithful wife
And I gave you a child so late in my life
My time was done, when I bore you a son
Oh…

So take me home
And put me to bed
Cause the sun is in the sky
But it’s dark inside my head
       
And I don’t care
If I never do wake up
If I can’t be
With the one I love

Well I went down to the river so wide
Satan was standing on the other side
He said to me, Look and see
But hush little baby, don’t you cry
Cause I’ll be waiting on the other side
You won’t be alone, I’ll make it feel like home
Oh…

Questions for discussion

  1. According to this midrash, what causes Sarah’s death?
  2. How does the bluegrassy sound of this song change or contextualize the content? How might you imagine this midrash would be interpreted differently in a different style of music (classical, opera, heavy metal, rock, hip-hop?)

Footnoted song lyrics

Footnoted song lyrics

River So Wide (Footnoted)

A song in Sarah’s voice, by Girls in Trouble/Alicia Jo Rabins

I went down to the river so wide
Satan1 was standing on the other side
He said to me, look and see2
I saw you with our only child
With a knife in your hand and your eyes so wild
On the mountaintop3, and then the vision stopped
Oh…

My love, my love, what have you done
And where have you taken my only son
Some terrible place where I can’t see his face
All these years I’ve been a faithful wife
And I gave you a child so late in my life4
My time was done, when I bore you a son
Oh…

So take me home
And put me to bed
Cause the sun is in the sky
But it’s dark inside my head

And I don’t care
If I never do wake up
If I can’t be
With the one I love

Well I went down to the river so wide
Satan was standing on the other side
He said to me, Look and see
But hush little baby, don’t you cry
Cause I’ll be waiting on the other side
You won’t be alone, I’ll make it feel like home5
Oh…

1 This song is based on the following midrash: “As Abraham returned from Mount Moriah [where the Binding of Isaac took place]…what did Satan do? He went and said to Sarah, “Did you hear what happened in the world?” She said, “No.” He said to her, “Abraham took Isaac his son and slaughtered him and sacrificed him on the altar as an offering.” Sarah began to cry and wailed three screams, like three shofar blasts…And her soul burst from her and she died.” (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 31)

2 Some context about the Jewish version of Satan in the Talmud and Midrash: “Satan is the incarnation of all evil, and his thoughts and activities are devoted to the destruction of man; so that Satan, the impulse to evil (‘yetzer ha-ra’), and the angel of death are one and the same personality. He descends from heaven and leads astray, then ascends and brings accusations against mankind…he takes away the soul, or, in other words, he slays.” Source: The Jewish Encyclopedia

3 God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac to a mountaintop in the land of Moriah, to sacrifice him as a burnt offering to God. Genesis 22:9-10: … Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son.

4 According to the Torah, Sarah was old and no longer physically supposed to be able to bear children when she miraculously conceived and bore Isaac. Genesis 10:11: Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. Genesis 21:2: Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age.

5 In my twist on this midrash, I imagine Sarah not simply dying of grief - instead, she consciously decides to meet Isaac in the afterlife, “on the other side,” so he “won’t be alone.”

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

  • Create an illustration, script, poem or short story about the moment when Sarah hears about Isaac’s binding. You can follow the midrashic tradition of Satan delivering the news, as the Girls in Trouble song does, or invent a totally different story.
  • Insert yourself into the picture: create a self-portrait as Sarah.
  • Write a modern parable for the Akeidah story. Who would Sarah be today? What would her life be like?
  • Imagine a scenario in which Abraham tells Sarah his plans before setting off for the mountain with Isaac. What is her response? Draw, write or dance the scene.
  • Through Abraham’s eyes:  imagine you are Abraham returning from the Akeidah to find Sarah has died. Create a painting or poem about your feelings in this moment.
  • Put Sarah in the picture, imagining her actually present at the Akeidah, as some of the artwork does. Draw or write about what Sarah does when she sees her son bound by her husband on the mountain. You can imagine her talking to God; intervening physically; or simply comforting her son.
0 Comments
Cover Art for "Sarah's Sacrifice"
Full image
Cover art by Uri Berkowitz for "Sarah's Sacrifice," a lesson plan from the "Girls in Trouble" curriculum by Alicia Jo Rabins.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Sarah's Sacrifice." (Viewed on December 13, 2017) <https://jwa.org/teach/girlsintrouble/sarahs-sacrifice>.

Donate

Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

The JWA Podcast

listen now

Sign Up for JWA eNews

 

Discover Education Programs

Join our growing community of educators.

view programs