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Friday, November 18, 2011

Parshat Hayei Sarah: The Redemption of Isaac

This week's parashah is Hayei Sarah (Bereshit/Genesis 23:1 - 25:18 ), which begins by informing the reader that Sarah was 127 years old when she died. It then continues with the story of Abraham buying the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron in which to bury her and to then serve as the family burial site. He then commands his chief household servant to return to his homeland of Haran in order to find a wife for Isaac from among his kin. The servant returns with Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham's nephew Bethuel. Isaac then marries her and they begin their life together. The parashah ends with Abraham's death and Isaac and Ishmael burying him together alongside Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah.

This is the parashah which marks the transition from the first patriarch/matriarch couple to the birth of Jacob, who is to be born in next week's parashah, whose sons are to be the patriarchs of the future 12 Tribes of Israel. Without the birth of Isaac, God's promise of a people as numerous as “the starts in the heavens” could never have been fulfilled. So too, without Isaac's marriage to Rebekah, the lineage could not have continued with the birth of Jacob. However, it has always frustrated me how Isaac's personality is never fleshed out as much as that of his father or sons (especially Jacob). We know by reading that narrative what happens TO Isaac, but we know precious little of what actions he takes on his own.

In last week's parashah we read of his circumcision and of the ordeal when he was bound and almost sacrificed by his father. In the future, we shall read of how he is tricked by Jacob into giving him the paternal blessing that should have been Esau's. And in this week's parashah we read of how his father, with his servant's help, finds a suitable wife for him. But what about Isaac? What does he do? What is he thinking? What is he feeling? Alas, we shall never know.

In previous commentaries, I have written about both Jacob and his son Joseph as representing the ego. I have particularly focused on Joseph's journey as the journey of the ego, which eventually we need to negate in order to realize that it, and the self, are but illusions. In truth, there is only the One, of which we are a part. But what is Isaac? In some ways he could be seen as representing the desired negation of the ego. After all, he seems to have no sense of self. No ego. No needs or desires, at least up until this point. So what is he? What does he represent to us? I have a thought, but I want to explore the parashah a little more before revealing my answer.

In reading the parashah again, a few facts caught my attention:
  1. Isaac and Abraham never speak to each other after the Akeidah (Binding) in last week's parashah. As far as we can tell, they never saw each other again. Abraham returns from Mt. Moriah and the Akeidah.
  2. Sara’s death is mentioned, but we know nothing of Isaac's emotions, even though we know that Abraham and the people around him are described as mourning and bemoaning her death. However, this is hinted at by the fact that when Isaac takes Rebekah into his tent to be his wife, she “comforts him after the death of his mother.”
  3. The chief servant is instructed to bring back someone from Abraham's family, because Abraham did not want Isaac marrying from among the other nations. Abraham also makes it clear that Isaac is to stay where he is (wherever that may be) and may not return to Haran with the servant, saying that God has made him a promise to provide a suitable wife for Isaac and will send an angel ahead of the servant to insure this.
  4. Finally, in spite of the fact that Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac and exiled Ishmael, the two sons return to bury their father together.

So what has any of this to do with my thoughts about Isaac's role and what he might represent to all of us? To begin with, I must return to the opening lines of the parashah, where we read of Sarah’s death. According to various rabbinic commentaries and legends, Sarah died as a direct result of the Akeidah (Binding) of Isaac. In the Torah, Sarah is not made aware of what Abraham is doing. However, in the rabbinic texts, she does discover why Abraham has taken Isaac to Mt. Moriah. In some versions, she dies because she believes Abraham has killed Isaac. In others, she dies when she is overcome with joy at discovering that Abraham did not carry out the deed. However, what struck me was a commentary by Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, a contemporary scholar who writes, “even after learning that Isaac has survive [her death represents] an inability to live in a world as dangerous and unreliable as she has found this world to be, a world where life hangs by such a fragile thread.”

Sarah simply could not bear to live in a world that was filled with uncertainty and danger. It was just too much for her. If that is the case, how much more so would this be true for the one who was almost sacrificed by his father! But Isaac was not 127. He was not ready to die. And yet, a part of him did die that day on Mt. Moriah. Israeli poet Haim Guri wrote that the legacy of the Akeidah is that Jews are born with a “knife in their heart.” But for Isaac, it went deeper than that. The knife pierced his heart, his soul, his very being. He could not face father nor mother. He could not return to where he lived or to the person he was. And so he left, though we know not his destination. Due to the violence brought upon him, it was as if his very being was negated. His body existed, but little else. One could view this as the negation of the ego, which is what we supposedly strive for, but at what cost?

Still, even though Isaac leaves his family and his home, they somehow know where he is. After all, Abraham sends his servant to bring a wife home for him. So he must know where that home is. The father and son may no longer speak, but there is still some connection, even if tenuous at best. And Isaac must be complicit in the arrangement as well. After all, he accepts the bride his father provides with open arms. He takes him into his tent (a midrash says it was Sarah's tent in which she welcomed all visitors), consummates the marriage and finally finds comfort after the death of his mother.

What fascinated me when reading the parashah this time is that the chief servant of Abraham remains nameless. Tradition states that he was Eliezer, who is mentioned prior earlier in Genesis. But we do not know that for sure, even though he is the instrument of Abraham's plan. Actually, he is really the instrument of God's plan. It is God who promised Abraham a bride for Isaac and sends an angel to Abraham's native land with the servant. In this case, Eliezer – God is my help – would indeed be a fitting name for the servant. It is as if Eliezer himself is an angel. He is God's helper in bringing a bride from Abraham’s' land and from his kin, thereby insuring that Abraham and Isaac, though estranged, will forever be connected through Rebekah.

Rebekah then leaves her family and her home willingly, perhaps because she realizes her role in God's plan. For she is not merely a bride for Isaac, but the one who brings Isaac comfort after his mother's death. In this reading, she also brings him comfort after being spiritually (and almost physically) killed by his father. It is through Rebekah that Isaac is able to live again, even though he will always be wounded. It is through Rebekah that he finds a purpose in life, to continue the lineage as God has promised. Even though, as we know, things don't exactly go as he might have hoped in the future.

Finally, at the end of the parashah we are presented with a scene that in many ways is the final reconciliation or redemption in the narrative: Isaac and Ishmael bury their father together. After all he had done to them, they could have simply refused to honor him in this way. And yet, they realized that in order to move on, they needed to bury the past, but also honor it. They also needed to acknowledge that, for better or worse, they are in part who they are, and who they shall become, because of their father.

After the Akeidah and the death of his mother, Isaac could not bear to live in the world of uncertainty and danger, and so he allowed his soul to die. In Rebekah, who represents kindness, gentleness and generosity, he finds someone to care for him as Sarah did. He also finds someone to repair the broken relationship with his father, at least symbolically. Thus, in Sara’s tent, now Rebekah's, according to legend, he begins to heal. But it is only when he meets his long lost brother, looks him in the eye and together buries their father, that he is released from the past and able to reclaim his 'soul identity', the essence of his being, which he had lost. This soul identity, is found in the meaning of his name. He was named Yitzhak, in Hebrew, meaning “he shall laugh.” This was in response to the laughter of Sarah after hearing that she was to give birth at the age of 90, which was a miracle. But the true miracle, at least in this parashah, is that he is finally, or once again, able to embrace that name. That is the answer to the question I posed at the start of this commentary.

Who is Isaac? What does he represent? He is the part within each of us that is damaged or traumatized by life. It is the piece of us that does not want to accept the uncertainty and fragility of life. It is that within that would rather disconnect than take the risks inherent in relationships. And he is that within us that knows, deep down, that if we stay present in the moment, where we are, we can eventually find healing and redemption. The servant is commanded not to take Isaac to the place from which his father came, because he needed to stay right where he was. He needed to experience the reality of who and where he was in that moment, so he could acknowledge all the loses of his life, and come to terms with the fact that life is filled with uncertainty, and sometimes even danger and violence. But, staying present where he was also enabled him to finally be willing to accept the compassion, mercy and beauty that also exists, and which can redeem us all, as it is represented by his joining together with Rebekah Only then was he able to accept that very uncertainty of life that had killed his spirit and take the next step on his journey of life. Our lives may still hang by a “fragile thread”, as Aviva Zornberg wrote, but Isaac's story reminds us that the thread need not break. And if it does, there is someone there to catch us and to help us reweave the thread one step at at time.

Shabbat Shalom.

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