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Avodah Devar Torah for Parashat Hayei Sarah: Yitzhak: The Dispossessed Building Solidarity with the Dispossessed

Yitzhak: The Dispossessed Building Solidarity with the Dispossessed

Parashat Hayei Sarah (Bereishit/Genesis 23-25:18)

Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein,  Avodah National Jewish Educator, 5781

Hayei Sarah is a parashah of stinging irony. We enter the parashah wondering how Sarah will receive her broken family after the brutal ordeal of the Binding of Yitzhak/Isaac, at the end of last week’s parashah.  The first words, which give our parashah its name, suggest hope—”the life of Sarah”—but immediately, that hope is dashed and we discover a parashah about death, Sarah’s at the beginning and Avraham’s near the end. Moreover, our lingering uneasiness at the Binding of Isaac is left to fester, as we discover that none of the principal characters in the family—Avraham, Sarah, and Yitzhak—ever speaks to each other again. The Torah invites us to imagine an estranged and splintered family.  At the end of last week’s parashah, after the ‘Akeidah/Binding, Avraham returned with his assistants, and settled in Be’er Sheva‘ (22:19). But that doesn’t seem to be where Sarah was. At the beginning of this week’s parashah, we read, “And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hevron, in the land of Cana‘an. And Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to cry for her” (23:2). Avraham and Sarah were estranged after the ‘Akeidah and they never see each other again.

The most burning question, though, is what happens to Yitzhak after the ‘Akeidah. We never get a clear sense and the Torah never fully develops his personality, as if, perhaps, to protect his privacy from our horrified reactions to the state he might be in. In fact, one of the most central stories of Yitzhak’s life, the search for a woman to marry him (chapter 24), emphasizes his exclusion (e.g., verses 6-8) from the process. When Rivkah does arrive, the Torah gives us our first glimpse of Yitzhak, post-‘Akeidah, by telling us where he has been: “Yitzhak, meanwhile, had come back from the vicinity (literally, “the coming”) of Be’er-lahai-ro’i” (24:62). We have encountered Be’er-lachai-ro’i only once before. This was the place where God spoke to and supported Yitzhak’s frightened and pregnant step-mother, Hagar, after Sarai and Avram banished her from the house. It is the place where God promised Hagar that she would have a son whom she should call Yishma‘el, “for YHWH hears (shama‘) your suffering” (16:11). That story concludes: “And YHWH, who had spoken to her, she called by the name ‘God who sees me’/’God of seeing’, by which she meant, ‘Did I not go on seeing here after [God] had seen me?’  That is why the well is called ‘Be’er-lahai-ro’i’ (Well of the Living One who sees me)” (16:13).  Be’er-lahai-ro’i  was a place of thanksgiving and hope for the downtrodden, the evicted, the refugee, and it was inaugurated by the estranged, exiled members of Yitzhak’s family, namely, his brother, Yishma‘el, and his step-mother, Hagar.

The Rabbis sought to piece together Yitzhak’s life after the ‘Akeidah. Again, our verse tells us, “Yitzhak, meanwhile, had come back from the vicinity (literally, “the coming”) of Be’er-lahai-ro’i” (24:62). A midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 60:14) interprets as follows: “‘And Yitzhak had come back from the coming’—he came from death. And where did he go?  ‘Be’er-lahai-ro’i’—he went to bring Hagar—the one who had sat at the well and said to the One Who Lives Forever, ‘See my suffering!'” This is based on the tradition that Avraham’s wife at the end of his life, Keturah (25:1), is really Hagar, reconciled to him at the end of life (Bereishit Rabbah 61:4 and see Rashi on 24:62). Yitzhak went straight from the ‘Akeidah to Be’er-lahai-ro’i to bring Hagar to Avraham so that they could reconcile, so that Avraham could repent to her.

The portrait is heartbreakingly bittersweet: father and son who can never and will never speak to each other again, but each one tries to reconcile and pick up the pieces by finding a love partner for the other. Perhaps each one feels hopelessly alone and despondent—Yitzhak that his father could try to kill him, Avraham that he tried to kill his son, both of them that it did kill Sarah, and both that God imposed this awful scenario upon them. What is especially striking, though, is that while Avraham looks to his kin in the old country to provide a stable, nurturing partner for his shattered son, Yitzhak goes right to the heart of the matter: this business is about healing familial wounds and this family’s wounds begin with Avraham’s banishment of Hagar. Yitzhak, the favorite son, understands the neglected and exiled members of the family; his lot was cast with theirs when he was bound on Mt. Moriah. 

The Torah suggests that Yitzhak’s reconciliation was not only with Hagar. The parashah approaches its final breath by describing Avraham’s: “When Avraham had breathed his last, dying at a happy, ripe age, old and full of years, he was gathered to his kin. His sons Yitzhak and Yishma‘el buried him in the cave of Makhpelah…(25:8-9).” Lest we think that the estranged brothers, nemeses from childhood (21:9-10), came together begrudgingly to bury their father in Hevron and go their separate ways, we learn, “And it happened, after the death of Avraham, that God blessed Yitzhak, his son, and Yitzhak settled near Be’er-lahai-ro’i” (25:11). In response to a lifetime of death, suffering, and trauma, the brothers who are supposed to hate each other settle down together. This is, perhaps, an act of repair for Cain’s jealous murder of Hevel/Abel and for Avraham and Lot’s nuisanced and dispassionate split (13:5-12) and a seed of hope that all of the other sibling feuds—of Ya‘akov and Esav, Rahel and Leah, Yoseph and his brothers, and down to our own, painful day and age—can be settled, that there must be an alternative to hatred and bloodshed.

Yitzhak doesn’t try to compete with Hagar and Yishma‘el for who has suffered more; he identifies with them and builds solidarity with them. They are his home. Together, this band of the abandoned comes together, to powerfully heal family violence. Yitzhak, the only of the patriarchs never to have set foot in the Diaspora, is the one who most profoundly lives the experience of exile. He is our prayer that suffering and victimhood will not feed into a cycle of persecution Olympics, hostility, and vengeance, but can be fertile soil for empathy and reconciliation. 

Shabbat shalom.

An ancestor version of this devar torah was written years ago for the Camp Ramah in Wisconsin devar torah list serve. Thanks to the camp for supporting the flourishing of Torah ideas.

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