[Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, Cotati, CA, November 21, 2008.]
This week we read the parashah called Chayei Sarah. To my mind, this parashah is notable for its mood of “aftermath” or “anti-climax”. It follows on the heels of one of the most action-packed parashiyot in Torah, Vayera, in which angels knocked on the tent flap. Heirs were promised and delivered. The barren gave birth. A man bargained with God. Cities were destroyed. A woman looked back at her past and turned to salt. A handmaiden was sent into exile with her son. A child was tied to a rock on a mountaintop and watched as his father raised a knife to slaughter him. A ram, held in reserve since the last day of creation, appeared to take his place. And an angel opened the handmaid’s eyes so she could find water to save herself and her son.
But that was last week’s parashah.
This week Vayera is over. Chayei Sarah begins. And it has a definite acrid flavor of post-trauma. The stale breath of the morning after.
Here is what happens in the aftermath of Vayera. Sarah dies. A bewildered Abraham hustles to find a burial place. Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac. The servant stumbles upon Abraham’s niece, Rebecca, and recognizes her to be Isaac’s basherte, his destiny, or at least history’s basherte. Abraham remarries and has more children. Abraham dies at a very old age. Isaac and Ishmael bury him alongside Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.
It is this last image – of Isaac and Ishmael together, side by side, wielding shovel and pick to bury their father – that gave me pause this year. The reuniting and realigning of warring factions in the face of tragedy. At least that’s what I first thought.
And why not? Weren’t Isaac and Ishmael warring? Genesis is full of stories of sibling tension – Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and all the others. Even Rebecca, in this week’s parashah, seems suspiciously eager to follow Abraham’s servant and put some miles between herself and her brother Laban. So sibling rivalry giving rise to actual enmity and episodes of violence seems to be a dominant theme throughout Genesis. Don’t Isaac and Ishmael fall into that paradigm?
Many of our sages thought so. They attributed to Ishmael every possible self-serving motivation, so that his fate, being turned out into the wilderness with his mother, would seem more deserved. The rabbis undoubtedly had their view colored by the fact that relations between the Jews, who are descendants of Isaac, and the Ishmaelites, were, in their time, not always smooth. Nor are they so smooth today, although there have been better times between us in the past.
Torah itself, however, is silent about who Ishmael was, what he was like, what motivated him. We know he was conceived at Sarah’s behest, to provide Abraham with an heir. We know he did something with or to Isaac – metzachek (מְצָחֵק) is the Hebrew word – that caused Sarah to demand his exile. Whatever it was could have been spiteful. Or it could have been playful. Some of the sages say he was mocking Isaac; others that he was teaching Isaac to worship false gods; one says he was using Isaac as target practice with his bow and arrow. But truthfully, Torah doesn’t explain what he was doing, but does imply he was still a child when he did it. He and his mother, Hagar, are banished to the wilderness; they run out of water and of hope; until an angel opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a spring. Torah tells us Ishmael grew to become a master archer. Then he’s written out of the story, except for this one brief cameo appearance, burying Abraham at Isaac’s side.
But before we get all mushy about Ishmael’s mistreatment, let’s look at what happened to the one who didn’t get away. Isaac. He was a miracle baby, born to fulfill a God-promised destiny. That of itself is a tall order. Then he is brought to a mountaintop where he is tied down and watches as his father, playing a mind-numbing game of chicken with God, raises a knife to kill him. Alas for Isaac, it is God’s angel, and not Abraham, who concedes the game. But whether God was testing Abraham or Abraham was testing God is not, from Isaac’s perspective, a terribly meaningful question. Isaac saw the knife, and midrash has it that that is when his vision began to fail. By old age Isaac is blind. Meanwhile, unlike Abraham his father and Jacob his son, Isaac is never an actor. He is always acted upon. His father raises a knife to him; others choose his wife; his wife and son trick him into giving the firstborn’s blessing to his second-born child. Isaac’s life, once he gets off that rock, seems never to get itself together again. He lives out the reverberations of his childhood trauma passively until the moment of his own death.
So are Isaac and Ishmael enemies? At first I thought, aha! This is a parable about the healing that can come later in life. Isaac and Ishmael are enemies, but at their father’s death they make amends. But on the other hand, Isaac and Ishmael might not be enemies, but allies – both having suffered at the hand of their father, both having been sacrificed for the sake of history, for the sake of a great destiny. I can’t help but think about political children in our own culture – Sarah Palin’s pregnant daughter, the Obama children, still famously puppy-less, not to mention a half-dozen Kennedys – who have had or will have to recover their own lives someday when and if they are their own to live. I wondered if Isaac and Ishmael envied each other – Ishmael wanting legitimacy and belonging; Isaac imagining what he might have done that day if he’d known how to shoot a bow and arrow.
At some point in thinking about this possible Isaac-Ishmael alliance something occurred to me. In those days, as in Jewish tradition now, when someone died, they needed to be buried right away. How did Ishmael get there so fast? He lived in the wilderness of Paran. Perhaps a messenger on camel was sent off at a gallop, but then who sent the messenger? If Abraham was already dead, then Isaac did. Which means Isaac knew where to find Ishmael. But Torah, which loves the detail of the camel journey, doesn’t tell us that.
Maybe, more plausibly, Ishmael was already there. It was Isaac and Ishmael together who nursed their father in his final illness. And maybe, just maybe, Abraham and Isaac were in communication with Ishmael all throughout the long years. Why not?
I looked to see if our tradition offers any support for this. And sure enough, according to one midrash, when Abraham helped ready Hagar and Ishmael for their exile, he attached a dirdur – a small wheeled wagon – to her belt, so that it would leave a trail that he could later follow. And in the same midrash, Abraham actually takes journeys to visit Ishmael. This tradition offers us a different view of Ishmael and Isaac, not as bitter enemies, but more like children of divorce, separated geographically but brothers nonetheless.
From here, in a drash like this, one could extrapolate to say something about siblinghood, or about families, broken families, communities, nations, Jewish-Arab co-existence, co-existence in general. Or something about trauma and healing. When I read these parashiyot, I sometimes like to pretend that they’re a dream. Because in a dream all the characters are you. You are Isaac. You are Ishmael. You are also Abraham. So close your eyes for a moment. And think back, back, back to a time when you banished some part of yourself. A dream, a belief, an outlook, a talent. Something from your youth that you felt was incompatible with your destiny. What was that part of you that you banished? Appreciate for a moment the beauty and familiarity of that part of you, even after all these years. Set that piece aside for a moment, knowing it’s not going anywhere.
Now think about what you kept. The part of you that fit with what you saw for yourself. Has it been everything you wanted? Has it been some of what you wanted? Appreciate for a moment that it has weathered trials and sacrifices, and that it has allowed you to survive.
Now imagine those two versions of you looking at each other. Be one, then be the other. Go up and back. Smile at each other. Imagine that whatever need there was to split you in two has expired and is ready to be put to rest.
Imagine that even though you’ve been separated from each other, the other hasn’t really been missing, but has been nearby all along, watching, waiting for your call, completely up to date. Go ahead, embrace. You know you want to.
As Reb Yiskah Rosenfeld reminded us recently, on Shabbat we each receive a second soul – maybe that part of you that you sent away and that you’ve always missed, maybe that is your second soul, your missing twin. Maybe Ishmael is Isaac’s second soul, and Isaac is Ishmael’s. It is now Shabbat. Rejoin. Rejoice.
Imagine now how it might be if you stayed in this embrace in everything you do. All your parts working. Your dreams and desires intact. How grateful would you feel? How grateful do you feel now? Let yourself overflow with gratitude. Kosi revayah Truly, my cup overflows.