Parashat Hayei Sarah

Friday, November 2, 2018 /24 Heshvan, 5779
Parashat Hayei Sarah Genesis 23:1-25:18

Dear Friends,

Family crisis can bring conflicted family members together. Or… not.

I often am pleased and surprised to see estranged siblings, loathed cousins, or angered ex-spouses rejoin families when someone is ill, or in the face of bereavement. It is gratifying to see enmity and hurt be set aside for the greater good of shalom bayit – peace in the family.

And, I have been irritated, disappointed and basically soured to see estranged siblings, loathed cousins and angered ex-spouses dig in their heels and refuse to temper their hurts or shelve their grievances, and choose to remain aloof or away when a family emergency emerges.

Today’s Torah portion offers a tiny verse which demonstrates these potentials. In the beginning of our portion, our matriarch, Sarah, died, and at the end of the portion, our patriarch, Abraham, died. Regarding Abraham’s burial, we read, “His sons, Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah…” [Genesis 25:9]

How fascinating: the two estranged brothers, Ishmael and Isaac, had had no reported interactions of any kind since Ishmael, with his mother, Hagar, was expelled from the family tent due to Sarah’s furious jealousy. One can surmise that the boys and later adults had little relationship, and likely much animosity and even hostility. Perhaps, each brooded over the other’s inheritance claims. Perhaps, Ishmael, the eldest, yet born to the handmaiden of Sarah, feared being delegitimized by the younger Isaac, and perhaps Isaac similarly felt invalidated as the rightful heir to the now-open patrimony in the face of his older half-brother’s claim. Clearly, the two had every reason to disdain and even fear the other. Yet, the text calmly and even dismissively records that the two collaborated to bury their common father.

What happened? A commentary suggests that, once Abraham and Sarah had died, the two brothers could live harmoniously.   According to theories of family system psychology, although Ishmael could be identified as the problem child, the real problem in the family originated with Abraham’s favoritism and insensitivity to Sarah and Hagar. Thus, once Abraham died, the trigger of tension between the brothers also dissolved, and they could live amicably.

Yes, family crises can bring family members together, or… not. The problem is not always in the family members, but in the family issues. Perhaps, for people to live in concord, we need to learn to defer the issues so that we may embrace the persons.

It seems like Ishmael and Isaac were able to do so. That is inspiring for us!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Doug Kohn
rabbikohn@bethelsp.org