The Avinu Family: A Tragedy in Ten Episodes
By Norm Green, November 15, 2014
In the first two episodes we have seen wars and upheavals, destructions of whole cities, a woman turning into a pillar of salt, cruelty to a servant, and the disruptions of Abraham sending a son and his mother away, and their miraculous survival, and Abraham coming within seconds of slaughtering his other son.
In the weeks to come, we will see strife among brothers, between spouses and between our clan and its neighbors, deceit and guile, sexual impropriety, strained relationships between parents and children and in-laws, a brother sold into slavery, and eventually our entire people descending into servitude.
But this week, we have a respite. In Chayei Sarah, a lot of people do as they ought, and we have a picture of a pastoral clan living among decent, respectable people, while yet keeping their own identity, practices and customs.
Before burying Sarah’s body, Abraham makes sure he has recognizable title to the property. Abraham realizes that Isaac is still traumatized and cannot seem to finish his intense mourning for his mother, and he figures out how best to comfort him, sending his servant Eliezer to find Isaac a good wife. God answers their prayers with Rebekah, and she is the perfect cure for Isaac. He loves her, they meet each other’s needs; she becomes the one matriarch to whom God speaks directly.
But we also have a tradition that Isaac wasn’t merely sitting around moping. Imagine Isaac and remember his past. He comes from a family that had servants. Surely he spent much of his young childhood in the care of his mother’s handmaiden Hagar and his older brother Ishmael. He was surely considerably younger than Ishmael, but he was not a mere infant when they were sent away. I expect that it was a traumatic loss when they left. Yes, his older brother teased him, but that’s not such a big deal, is it? And if his father could send his older brother away, Isaac might have become quite insecure, imagining that his father might banish him as well, should his mother ever turn on him.
Then comes the Akeidah. We are disturbed by the whole event, but we don’t have to live through it. Isaac did live through it. I expect that an experience like that damages the father-son relationship. The father may be, in some ways, dead to him. Isaac and his dad may still have lived in the same land, but the Torah does not place them in the same place, and we do not learn of their speaking with one another, during the remainder of Abraham’s life. They came up to Mount Moriah together, but Abraham goes down from there alone.
So where does Isaac go to find comfort after experiencing the Akeidah and losing his mother? Why of course, he seeks out his loving nanny Hagar and his brother Ishmael. To Isaac, they are family.
How does he seek them out? He goes to B’er Lachai Ro-i, called by Rabbi Shai Held “the place where God sees and hears those who have been cast out.” The well there was named B’er Lachai Ro-i by Hagar when she first ran away from Sarai, who had been cruel to her. God’s angel comforted her there and urged her to go back to Abraham’s household, for she was pregnant with Ishmael.
Isaac goes there to find comfort for himself, and perhaps to experience the side of God that comforts the afflicted, having had enough of the emanation of God that put Abraham to an inscrutable test and Isaac himself through terrible suffering.
The Torah tells us that Isaac is coming out from B’er Lachai Ro-i when he first sees Rebekah and then proceeds to marry her. In the very next verse after telling us of this marriage, the Torah informs us that Abraham marries Keturah. Our midrashic tradition tells us that Keturah and Hagar are the same person. The implication is that, even while Abraham was arranging a match for Isaac, so also was Isaac arranging a match for Abraham, with, inevitably, a reconciliation of the family. That is a reconciliation of Isaac with Abraham and between them and Hagar and Ishmael.
This reconciliation is corroborated by the fact that, when Abraham eventually dies, the Torah informs us that he is contented, and his sons are able to come together peacefully to bury him.
I long thought that Isaac might have been distinctly less impressive than his father or his son, with fewer significant achievements. But if he was able to transcend his personal suffering so as to empathize with Hagar and Ishmael and bring about a family reconciliation in that generation, and able to keep things together enough that his sons, even after all of their tsuriss, eventually come together peacefully, then that’s a pretty good record.