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Chayei Sarah(Genesis 23:1-25:18)

Man of Peace

In many families, when a child reaches marriageable age, parents get involved. This may take the form of more or less subtle hints, comments or barbs, or, in some societies, active involvement in the process of selecting a mate.

When our second patriarch Yitzchak was “on the market” (the modern yeshivish idiom is “in the parashah”), his father Avraham summoned his most trusted aide and instructed him to set out on a journey to find an appropriate spouse for his son. Specifically, Avraham required that the woman be from his own hometown, from the land where Avraham was born.

What immediately strikes us as strange is Avraham’s caveat that Yitzchak himself must not cross the border of Canaan to travel to the place of Avraham’s birth. Yitzchak is to be left behind while the faithful servant finds him a spouse-by-proxy, as it were, an ancient version of a mail-order bride. Avraham’s insistence on this point is firm and unequivocal, yet no explanation for his chosen method of matchmaking is offered.

To fill in this void, we might surmise that Avraham’s method was a means of insuring continued possession of the land he had recently been granted as an inheritance. God had promised the land of Canaan to Avraham’s descendants, and had made it very clear that Yitzchak would be the sole heir. We should not forget that at that particular point in history, very few people had been made aware of this promise; perhaps Avraham was concerned that a break in the chain of possession would forfeit the inheritance. He did not want Yitzchak to leave the Land in which he had only recently begun to stake his legal, tangible, demonstrable claim. This conjecture is not without its own weaknesses, most notably the ease with which Yaakov, Yitzchak’s son and heir, is later sent on the very path Yitzchak is barred from taking.

Several years after Yitzchak’s betrothal, a famine hits the Land of Canaan. When Yitzchak considers migrating to Egypt in search of relief, as his father had done years earlier, God Himself instructs Yitzchak not to leave the Land. We might say, then, that Avraham intuited God’s objection; Avraham somehow knew that God had other plans for Yitzchak, and they did not include leaving the boundaries of the Promised Land. This may be related to Yitzchak’s personal history: The Akeida, in which Yitzchak was placed upon the altar as an offering to God, changed him forever. Yitzchak achieved a status of holiness that was permanent; only the Holy Land was appropriate for a person of this unique spirituality. Yitzchak could not leave Eretz Yisrael.

There may be another way to understand Yitzchak’s unique attachment to the Land of Israel, an alternative approach that stems from Yitzchak’s unique gifts, his unique personality. In general, Yitzchak is a bit of an enigma. We know far more about Avraham and Yaakov – and even Yishmael and Esav are painted in greater detail in the text. The dearth of information creates an aura of mystery, but the few hints we have may provide some insight into his personality.

What do we know about Yitzchak as an individual, independent of his father? When Avraham’s envoy returns from his mission with a bride for Yitzchak, the Torah tells us that Yitzchak, too, has been travelling. He returns from a trip to a place called Be’er l’Chai Roi, The Well of the Living Vision. This place is not new to us; we know that Hagar gave it its name after seeing a vision there. When Sarah passed away, Avraham made the continuity of his family and the transmission of the legacy he had built with Sarah his first priority. He became actively involved in finding a wife for his son Yitzchak. At the same time, rabbinic tradition reports, Yitzchak became concerned about his father’s loneliness, and took up the task of rekindling the relationship between Hagar and Avraham (24:62, and Rashi’s comments on the verse).

This is only one of Yitzchak’s conciliatory gestures enumerated in the text: When Avraham passed away, we are told that both his sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael, came together:

And Yitzchak and Yishmael his sons buried him in the Cave of Machpelah in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which faces Mamre. (25:9)

Both sons united, with Yishmael taking a deferent step back and allowing Yitzchak to take the primary role. From the very particular wording of this verse, our sages understood that “Yishmael had repented.” No longer jealous of the younger brother who he once blamed for forcing him out of his inheritance, no longer wounded by the second-class treatment his mother had been subjected to, Yishmael now acknowledged Yitzchak as the primary son of Avraham’s “real” wife. He was able to stand behind Yitzchak and honor their father’s memory and wishes. How did this come about? It was most certainly to be credited to the gentle, conciliatory ways of Yitzchak, who was wise enough, secure enough, sensitive enough to validate not only Hagar’s relationship with Avraham, but also the place where she was granted revelation. This was no mere “lip service,” nor was it a ploy to make peace: After Avraham’s passing, Yitzchak chooses to live in the area of Be’er l’Chai Ro’i. (25:11)

With this insight into Yitzchak’s personality, it should come as no surprise that he is uniquely capable of accepting and loving his troubled son Esav. While others might have rejected someone so superficial, so untamed and unyielding, Yitzchak had a knack for getting along with people, especially family members who might otherwise have been forever estranged. Yitzchak, who had loved and been loved throughout his life – by his own father, by his wife – was able to love others as they were, able to see the redeeming aspects of troubled personalities and love others on their own terms. Yitzchak was a conciliatory person, a man who brought peace to others because he was at peace with himself.

This may have been the precise cause of Avraham’s concern; the reason Avraham did not want Yitzchak to travel back to the hometown he himself had left behind. Had Yitzchak returned to Aram Naharaim, Avraham envisioned Yitzchak trying to heal the relationships, to mend the proverbial fences. Avraham apparently felt that his nascent nation was too new and vulnerable to undertake an outreach program; the time was not yet ripe to try to influence others. The local Canaanite idolaters were not a cause for concern; Yitzchak knew that they were a separate people. It was precisely with family members that Avraham felt there was cause for concern. Yitzchak, who knew how to keep his family together despite the challenges presented by Hagar, Yishmael and Esav, was not permitted to go back to the old country, a place of intolerance and enforced uniformity.

In time, Yaakov’s experiences in that same family environment proved Avraham’s fears were not unfounded: Even Yaakov, who was far less conciliatory and who was far more adept at holding his own in the face of predators, had a very hard time extricating himself from the household of Betuel and Lavan. Yitzchak, whose life story is one of cooperation and inclusion, would surely have been lost in such a milieu – either subsumed into the larger household of his extended family or thrown into the furnace from which his father Avraham had only narrowly escaped.

For a more in-depth analysis see: http://arikahn.blogspot.co.il/2015/11/essays-and-audio-chayei-sarah.html

November 2, 2015

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