Torah Reading for Week of October 24 – October 30, 2010
“Isaac and Ishmael as Role Models for Reconcilliation”
by Chaplain Barbara Singer, ’09
Including the death of Sarah at the beginning of the portion, and the death of Abraham towards the end, Chayei Sarah is replete with themes of family relationships when facing the loss of a loved one. Indeed, Chayei Sarah instructs us as to the need to bury our dead, the beginning of Jewish mourning customs, and the intensity surrounding the end of life. Our first family had no role models to follow: Abraham set a precedent when he bought a burial plot for Sarah. Isaac and Ishmael set a precedent when these estranged brothers came together to bury their father Abraham. It is this aspect of the Torah portion that I wish to address.
As a chaplain providing spiritual care to a man whose mother had just died, I listened to him recount the lengthy story of dysfunction in his family. Even though they lived nearby, his sisters would not come to see their mother when she was very ill, and they would not come to wait with him for the mortuary to retrieve the body or help him make arrangements. The mother had lived with him for several years. They informed him that they would see him at the funeral. As we waited for the mortuary together, I listened, and my heart was saddened by his situation.
Isaac and Ishmael are portrayed in the Torah as enemies, and certainly Ishmael became the father of an enemy nation. However, in Genesis 25, verses 9 and 10, we read that Isaac and Ishmael buried Abraham in the cave of Machpelah. Given the background and the separate destiny of these brothers, we would not expect them both to come together to bury their common father, but they did. We wonder how Ishmael even found out that Abraham had died. It is possible that Isaac and Ishmael had had contact from time to time prior to the death of Abraham. Perhaps they had already reconciled. Maybe their bond as brothers was stronger than the animosity between their mothers.
Or perhaps, something else is at play here. Both Isaac and Ishmael loved their father Abraham in spite of his flaws, and, in Isaac’s case, even though he was nearly sacrificed by Abraham’s hand. The brothers realized the importance of the task, and they rose to its challenge. Showing new-found maturity, they were able to suspend, at least temporarily, whatever differences they had between them. They focused on honoring their father Abraham by burying him together. Both Isaac and Ishmael knew that it was their last opportunity to honor him. And indeed, they participated together in one of the greatest mitzvot we can do.
Whether they maintained contact after burying Abraham we do not know. Nevertheless, if Isaac and Ishmael, who each became leaders of separate enemy nations, could reconcile long enough to bury their dead together, certainly family members today can learn by their example. They too can rise to the challenge of putting their own differences aside to focus on burying their loved one together and supporting each other in their grief. Such reconciliation may even lead to understanding and renewed relationships between those who have been estranged, thereby strengthening the family bond and healing its individuals.