D’var Torah: November 4, 2015

Dear Friends,

“This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre.” (Genesis 25:7-9)

Three major events happen in Parashat Chayei Sarah. First Sarah dies, and Abraham buries her. Next Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to find a bride for Isaac. Eliezer prays to God for a sign to help him find the right bride, and he finds Rebekah, a woman of kindness and generosity-just like Sarah. Isaac loves her and marries her. Abraham remarries and has more children. Then Abraham dies, and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, bury him.

This last event-an episode that is described in merely three verses of Torah-teaches us an important lesson. Over time, I have heard many stories of families who refuse to speak to one another. Sometimes it is for understandable reasons-situations of abuse or events that bring out traumatic memories. More often, the hostilities are difficult to understand. One fight, one moment sets family members against one another. An outsider may never comprehend how these seemingly small animosities could devastate the relationship.

Isaac and Ishmael had good reasons to hate their father. Isaac had the frightening experience of nearly being sacrificed. He had to live the rest of his life knowing that Abraham did not plead with God when God asked him to make the sacrifice. After all, Abraham had been willing to argue with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Torah never shows Abraham and Isaac speaking again. All it says is that “Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Beer-sheba” (Genesis 22:19). Where was Isaac?

As for Ishmael, he was Abraham’s firstborn son, and yet he was denied the birthright and the inheritance. Furthermore, he saw his father play favorites with Isaac. Isaac had a circumcision and a weaning party, but Ishmael had only the circumcision. Sarah treated his mother, Hagar, harshly, and Abraham allowed it. Worst of all, Abraham sent Ishmael away at Sarah’s command.

Isaac and Ishmael surely allowed their feelings for their parents to color the way they saw and felt about each other. There must have been terrible sibling rivalry. In Genesis 21:9, Sarah sees Ishmael playing. There are many interpretations of what this might mean, but one midrash says that Ishmael took a bow and arrows and shot them in Isaac’s direction (B’reishit Rabbah 53:11).

Despite all of this, Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father. Their actions teach us that when it comes to family, we should take risks to do the right thing. Clearly there are situations, like that of serious abuse, when this idea cannot apply. But this episode shows us that whenever possible, we should consider the value that there is in family. Why did Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father? Did they still have brotherly affection for each other, despite their history of conflict? Perhaps they had repaired their relationships with Abraham and with each other to some degree. There are certainly midrashim that support such an idea. Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 30, depicts Abraham venturing out into the wilderness to visit Ishmael. If this can be imagined, then surely the father would also have made overtures toward Isaac, his designated heir.

Possibly it was merely a sense of family and religious obligation that brought the two men to their father’s graveside. However, I would like to imagine that their father’s death gave them the opportunity to start healing their emotional wounds. Most likely, they never became best friends, but that doesn’t matter. They were able to reunite in that time of grief and support one another, to be family for each other. When the Israelites received the Torah, they said, “Naaseh v’nishma-we will do and we will hear.” We learn from this that when it comes to doing mitzvot, sometimes we have to engage in the right action before we can understand its meaning. If Isaac and Ishmael, those classic enemies, could come together in a time of crisis, so should we in our families; so should we in our family of Judaism; so should we in our family of humanity.

This D’var Torah was originally published in reformjudaism.org.


Cantor Sally Neff