Tensions, Difficult Family Dynamics, Reconciliation
Dvar, 6 November 2004
given at Adath Shalom by Danielle Dugas
Even though it is called Chaye Sarah, this week’s parsha is hardly about Sarah. A great deal of the narrative deals with Abraham, either in the lead role, or directing the movements of others; and it concerns him, his relationship with his sons, or the relationship between his sons. As is often the case in Torah, we are told facts, and we are left to reconstruct feelings. The one feeling which is explicitely accounted for is the love that Isaac felt for Rebecca once they were married.
I would like to suggest that the underlying theme of the story is separation, and that the tension arising within the silent players stems from a deep yearning for reconciliation.
In Torah Sparks 2000, we find a useful summary. The parsha starts (Gen 23:1-20) when Sarah dies at the age of 127. Abraham, after bargaining with Ephron, acquires the Cave of Machpelah, in Hebron, as a family burial plot. This is the first Jewish acquisition of property in the Land of Israel. (Gen 24:1-9) Abraham sends his servant back to Aram-Naharaim to find a wife for Isaac. (Gen: 24:10-28) Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, has been sent to Haran to find a wife for Isaac. He arrives in Haran, and finds Rebecca at the well, where she passes his “test” of compassion and diligence. (Gen 24:29-49) Eliezer tells his journey’s purpose and recounts his experiences to Laban, Rebecca’s brother, and how G-d led him to find Rebecca for Isaac. (Gen25:50-52) Laban and Bethuel agree to allow Rebecca to go with Eliezer. (Gen24:53-67) Rebecca consents to go with Eliezer, and is given a farewell blessing by her family. Rebecca goes to Canaan and is wed to Isaac. (Gen25:1-6) The genealogy of Abrahamn’s descendants from his second marriage, to Keturah. Gen 25:7-11) Abraham dies and is buried next to Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah. (Gen 25:12-18) A genealogy of Ishmael’s descendants.
The first subtle hint of tension lies in the statement (Gen 23:2): “Sarah died in Kiriat-Arba”. At the end of Vayera, we read (Gen 22:19) : “and Abraham stayed in Beersheba”. At the end of their lives, Sarah and Abraham were not together.
After burying Sarah in due form, Abraham proceeds to organize further the life of his son: he gives explicit instructions to Eliezer to go find a wife for Isaac among his kin. Eliezer must travel away; under no condition is Isaac to leave the land. Isaac’s job is to stay at home and be the gracious recipient of Abraham’s wise ways. Indeed it is said that it must be very difffcicult to live as a child in the shadow of a very strong, famous, or very powerful parent.
While Eliezer is away looking for the right wife, Isaac ponders life (Gen 24:62-63): “Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beer-Lahai-Roi, for he was settled in the region of the Negev. And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide”. What was Isaac meditating about? What was on his mind? The obvious, in context, might be his wonder or worry or speculation about how Eliezer would conclude his mission concerning his future wife. But the Torah does not always refer to the obvious. Rabbi Konigsberg prepared notes for Torah Sparks for November 2000 where he says:
As a future bride, Rebecca, is approaching her new home, Isaac goes out in the field to meditate. Nothing unusual about that. We would imagine Isaac to be a spiritually sensitive young man; one who would meditate on the eve of his marriage. However, the Torah makes it a point of telling us that Isaac had just come from a place called Beer-Lahai-Roi... Beer-Lahai-Roi is the place where Hagar and Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother, found themselves hungry and thristy after being sent out by Sarah and Abraham... Now what do you suppose Isaac was doing at this place; specially just before his marriage?... All of this life, Isaac has been haunted by the absence of this half-brother. Why should a brother be expelled? “Maybe it was my fault”the young Isaac agonized, “how could my parents, the epitome of kindness and hospitality, put out a young boy and his mother into the desert?” ... But now, with Sarah dead, Isaac could finally explore his brother’s agony. And so he goes to the place where his brother suffered so; suffered from not only thirst and hunger, but form the terrible sense of rejection by his father... (Ephraim Rubinger; Sermon Nov 1997 “Other or Brother”)
One day when he (Isaac) was four, Ishamel was teaching him to wrestle ... suddenly Isaac’s mother appeared. “What are you doing?” she shouted at them... In the morning, he waited for Ishmael to come to him... He went to Ishmael’tent. He wasn’t there... “Do you know where they are?” he asked his mother. “Yes, they left early this morning.” “Left? Where did they go? Why didn’t Ishamel say anything to me? Why didn’t he take me with him?” Isaac cried. “They had to leave”, his mother said stonily... Abraham put his arm around Isaac and explained “Ishamel and Hagar did something bad and had to be punished. We couldn’t allow them to stay anymore. They had to leave.” “What did they do that was so bad?” “You will understand when you grow up”. “”Will you send me away if I also do something bad?” “Of course not, you are my son, my favorite son ...
(S/He Created them; Naomi Graetz; p38-44)
What a complex mixture of feelings must have stewed in Isaac’s mind.
What extraordinary ability for acceptance of all these tensions.
And what ability to find the treasure which is in the here and now, as opposed to the treasure that he might yearn for and never get.
Isaac cannot have his brother back. He can only go where his brother was sent away, and make that place his.
And he can learn to love Rebecca. (Gen 24:67): “Isaac brougth Rebecca into the tent of this mother Sarah and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, (and thus found comfort after his mother’s death”.
Finally we hear that Abraham marries again, Keturah, and with her has 6 sons. (Gen25:5-6) “Abraham willed all that he owed to Isaac; but to Abraham’s sons by concubines, Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East.”
He sent away his first son Ishmael in anguish.
He raised his hand, prepared to slaughter his second son Isaac.
He had six more sons, and he sent them away.
Yet today’s story concludes with this comment about Abraham: (Gen 25:8) “And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin”.
The word contented in this sentence surprises and disturbs. I would like to offer another view of Abraham’ s perception of his life. It is presented in a poem titled “Abraham“ by Delmore Schwartz (Selected Poems, Summer Knowledge, 1954).
To J. M. Kaplan
I was a mere boy in a stone-cutter's shop
When, early one evening, my raised hand
Was halted and the soundless voice said:
"Depart from your father and your country
And the things to which you are accustomed.
Go now into a country unknown and strange
I will make of will haunt every generation of all the nations,
They will be lik your children a great nation,
Your generations e the stars at midnight, like the sand of the sea."
Then I looked up at the infinite sky,
Star-pointing and silent, and it was then, on that evening, that I
Became a man: that evening of my manhood's birthday.
I went then to Egypt, the greatest of nations.
There I encountered the Pharaoh who built the tombs,
Great public buildings, many theatres, and seashore villas:
And my wife's beauty was such that, fearing his power and lust,
I called her my sister, a girl neither for him nor for me.
And soon was fugitive, a nomad again.
Living alone with my sister, becoming very rich
In all but children, in herds, in possessions, the herds continually
Increased my possessions through prodigies of progeny.
From time to time, in the afternoon's revery
In the late sunlight or the cool of the evening
I called to mind the protracted vanity of that promise
Which had called me forth from my father's house unwillingly
Into the last strangeness of Egypt and the childless desert.
Then Sarah gave me her handmaid, a young girl
That I might at least at last have children by another
And later, when a great deal else had occurred,
I put away Hagar, with the utmost remorse
Because the child was the cause of so much rivalry and jealousy.
At last when all this had passed or when
The promise seemed the parts of dream,
When we were worn out and patient in all things
The stranger came, suave and elegant,
A messenger who renewed the promise, making Sarah
Burst out laughing hysterically!
But the boy was bom and grew and I saw
What I had known, I knew what I had seen, for he
Possessed his mother's beauty and his father's humility,
And was not marked and marred by her sour irony and my endless anxiety.
Then the angel returned, asking that I surrender
My son as a lamb to show that humility
Still lived in me, and was not altered by age and prosperity.
I said nothing, shocked and passive. Then I said but to myself alone:
This was to be expected. These promises
Are never unequivocal or unambiguous, in this
As in all things which are desired the most:
I have had great riches and great beauty.
I cannot expect the perfection of every wish
And if I deny the command, who knows what will happen?"
But his life was forgiven and given back to me:
His children and their children are an endless nation:
Dispersed on every coast. And I am not gratified
Nor astonished. It has never been otherwise:
Exiled, wandering, dumbfounded by riches,
Estranged among strangers, dismayed by the infinite sky,
An alien to myself until at last the caste of the last alienation
The angel of death comes to make the alienated and indestructible one a part of his famous society.