By Frank Kurtz
25 Cheshvan 5779 • November 3, 2018
Parshat Chayei Sarah is not about Sarah’s life, but about her legacy. As the Torah narrative opens, the core family of Sarah and Abraham has been blown apart. The first son Ishmael and his mother Hagar, a former slave in the household who served as a surrogate when Sarah was presumed to be barren, were expelled and abandoned to the desert wilderness. Isaac, the improbable progeny of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, is bitterly estranged as a result of Abraham’s ill-advised attempt to make him a sacrifice as a demonstration of piety to G-d’s demand, and he has moved away from his childhood home. Abraham buries his wife in the recently acquired tomb of Machpelah and then approaches the end of his life with two notable actions. First, he dispatches his servant to the homeland of his ancestors to find a wife for Isaac, which introduces us to the character of Rebecca, a woman of grace, kindness, and devotion. She agrees on her own volition to go to Isaac, and he takes her to his mother’s tent (an interesting description) to consummate their bond and comes to love her and find comfort in a remarkable way for our founding patriarchal line. Second, Abraham then takes another wife, Keturah, with whom he sires several unremarkable sons whose only significance seems to be that they were progenitors several unremarkable tribes.
And then Abraham dies at age 175 “at a good ripe age, old and contented”. It is time to lay him to rest at Machpelah. The Torah says – without elaboration – that Isaac and Ishmael buried him, period. No further description and no elaboration of that moment, which leaves everything to our imagination. Some take this remarkable brevity as an indication of full reconciliation between the half-brothers and a healing of the rifts and destructive moments of their family history. In the words of Rabbi Nat Ezray of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City:
When Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael come together again to bury him. The story beneath the story is one of reconciliation and embrace as brothers. The Midrash has Abraham visiting Ishmael and continuing to love and support him. On the surface, the story of Isaac and Ishmael is about sibling rivalry and the displacement of the elder by the younger. Beneath the surface is just the opposite. Isaac does not displace Ishmael. To be sure, he will have a different destiny. But he too is a beloved son of Abraham, blessed by his father and God. He becomes a great nation. God is ‘with him’ as he grows up. The half-brothers stand together at their father’s grave. There is no hostility or conflict.
It is certainly a lovely image that is very appealing, but it hardly compares with the reconciliation one generation later between Jacob and Esau, complete with weeping and loving embraces or a generation after that when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, forgiving them for his bondage and near-death experiences in Egypt and providing them with sanctuary from the famine in Canaan. These later instances of reconciliation are replete with drama and overpowering emotion that have profound effects on the lives of everyone involved. In the case of Isaac and Ishmael we are given only a moment in time in which two brothers who are otherwise not connected to each other accomplish one task together in their mutual interest. Both of them were severely aggrieved against their dead father. Ishmael was expelled and abandoned, not because of what he might have done but because Sarah had no further use of him or his mother when she had a son of her own. Isaac left his father in the immediate aftermath of the binding and almost killing on Mount Moriah. Furthermore, it is Isaac who is the sole heir of their father, so the brothers have little in common. And yet, they are able to fulfill their filial duty to accord their father the dignity of a proper burial. The significance of this is described as follows by Joe Pranevich, a biblical scholar and blogger:
But after all that hardship, the brothers came together to bury their father. Through their common grief, they found something uncommon: forgiveness and even a joint sense of purpose. This is remarkable when you consider just how challenging it is to be siblings in the Torah: Cain’s rivalry with Abel led to the first murder, Jacob’s and Esau’s will nearly lead to war, and Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Of all the prominent brothers, only Moses and Aaron were successful together, and look what they accomplished!
One of the Proverbs, traditionally written by Solomon, remarks on how difficult it is for brothers to reunite:
A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city; disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel. Proverbs 18:19
This passage has, of course, taken on new meaning in the conflict between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Where Jews and Christians embraced Isaac as one of their patriarchs, Muslims tie their history to Ishmael. In the Quran, it is Ishmael that is nearly sacrificed on the mountain, not Isaac. Like siblings in Genesis, the three Abrahamic faiths bicker and even come to violence, but there is so much more than connects them than separates them. Isaac and Ishmael, in the bible at least, came to a peace together. They saw in their father, Abraham, their shared history and perhaps even their shared joy.
The book of Hosea has a similar sentiment in the beginning of the second chapter. As Israel falls once again into sin and God readies another punishment, Hosea looks forward to a time when Israel can be united again, when the brother tribes repent and embrace each other as siblings:
“Say of your brothers, ‘My people,’ and of your sisters, ‘My loved one.’ Hosea 2:1
I love this story because I love to think that siblings can come together in common purpose, no matter how wide the gulf seems. If Isaac and Ishmael can do it, why can’t we?
Reconciliation, hugs and kisses, kumbaya, family gatherings, and all is forgiven? I think not. The spirit of the moment with Isaac and Ishmael is more like an armistice, a cessation of hostilities, for the sake of the needs of that point in time. The destinies of Isaac and Ishmael diverge after this, there is no further interaction between them, and when Ishmael dies he is not accorded burial in the family tomb. My sense is that most warfare within families ends up this way. Estranged branches go their separate ways, and generations later no one can remember why they became estranged and who and where these family branches are. When members of a family become estranged and stop speaking with each other because of some perceived misdeed, there is a term in Yiddish: brogez, from the Hebrew b’rogeiz, in anger. People who are brogez can carry on in highly imaginative ways to avoid interacting with those against whom they are feuding. Linda and I attended two separate funerals many years apart where this dynamic was going on. I am pleased to say that in neither case were we partisans of one side or the other, but is was appalling to see the choreography that these people undertook to avoid any contact with each other while they were supposedly honoring the memory of the loved ones they were laying to rest. I cannot imagine how it is possible to preserve the dignity of such a moment while having to pretend that one or more others in attendance do not exist.
Let’s face it: family disputes and reconciliation are hard. Many disputes are never reconciled, at least until those who are brogez are not around any longer and maybe their descendants are interested enough to bridge the divide. The grievances against one another may be so insurmountable, or the amount of ego in maintaining the dispute may be so enormous, that any thought of permanent reconciliation is impossible in the lifetimes of those involved. But the story of Isaac and Ishmael burying their father together provides us another paradigm. There are some moments in life that are more important than maintaining one side of an argument, such as the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, or the advent of sickness and similar family trauma. When the course of action to acknowledge and deal with these circumstances is clear, we should deal with the circumstances and not the disputes. Stand together, if only for a moment and only for a specific purpose, to get the job done. Have the courage of Isaac and Ishmael to be together when it counts. At least at that moment we can see each other and acknowledge our mutual existence. While we might not heal each other, we are not forgoing the opportunity to behave in dignity and respect when we and others most need it.