A Living Well
Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )
When we look at the beginning of the Parasha we notice that something is missing. We are told of the death of Sarah, the tears, Avraham's eulogy. We are told in detail how Avraham deals with the details of burial. What is missing is the other major character who we would have expected to have shed at least as many tears: Yitzchak. Where was he? Why did he miss his mother's funeral? This question is articulated by Rabbenu Bachya, who notes that Yitzchak's obligation for his beloved mother and his love for her should have at least equaled that of his father. Where were his tears? Where was his eulogy?2
Rabbenu Bachya reminds us that Yitzchak had just endured his own stressful, traumatic episode. He was bound to an altar, and watched the blade's rapid descent; only heavenly intervention spared his life. Rabbenu Bachya posits that, for fear that the tragedy of his mother's death may have been too much for him, Yitzchak was not informed of his mother's passing.3 Rabbenu Bachya then points out a blatant textual oddity: Not only is Yitzchak missing from Sarah's funeral, his disappearance begins at an earlier juncture, in the aftermath of the Akeida.
When Avraham sets out for the mountain he takes Yitzchak and two others, referred to as "n'arim" or young men. The text tells us that they walked together:
And Avraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Yitzchak his son, and he took the wood for the olah, and rose and went to the place of which God had spoken to him. On the third day - Avraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place from afar; and Avraham said to his young men, 'Remain here with the donkey, and I and the youth will go yonder and worship, and we will return to you.' And Avraham took the wood of the olah, and placed it on Yitzchak his son, and he took in his hand the fire, and the knife; and they went on both of them together. And Yitzchak said to Avraham his father, 'My father,' and [Avraham] said,'Here I am, my son.' And he said, 'Lo, the fire and the wood, and where the lamb for an olah?' And Avraham said, 'God doth provide for Himself the lamb for an olah, my son;' and they went on both of them together. (Bereishit 22:3-8)
Father and son walk together, united in love, united in their mission. However, at the end of the episode, we are told of only Avraham returning to the young men:
And Avraham returned to his young men, and they rose and went together to Beer-Sheva; and Avraham dwelled in Beer-Sheva. (Bereishit 22:19)
What happened to Yitzchak? It seems impossible that Avraham could have simply picked up and left without his precious son, the son born of a miraculous birth, the son who was just saved by God Himself. He would not simply have forgotten him up on the mountain while he went on with his own business. Other commentaries have noticed this lacuna in the text as well. Ibn Ezra, to name one, protests:
"Avraham returned" includes Yitzchak....those who say he (Avraham) killed him and left him behind, and then Yitzchak was resurrected - this is contradicted by the text." (Ibn Ezra 22:19)
While Ibn Ezra doesn't reveal who he has in mind, who could have read the text in such a warped manner,4 we are nonetheless able to see that the Ibn Ezra, like Rabbenu Bachya, is bothered by the "disappearance" of Yitzchak. Ibn Ezra insists that when the text says "Avraham" it really means Avraham and Yitzchak.
But the confusion only deepens when we note that Yitzchak "disappears" even before Avraham's descent from the mountain. It begins when the Angel calls out to Avraham, at the very apex of the mountain, at the most crucial moment of the Akeida, telling him to cease and desist. It continues, like an odd shadow, throughout the death, burial, and mourning of Sarah. But it doesn't stop there: Yitzchak even misses his own courtship. A surrogate is sent to find a wife for him. Only when Rivka arrives does Yitzchak, quite alive, return to the biblical narrative.
(PARADISE) YITZCHAK FOUND
In Rabbinic literature there are two basic approaches to Yitzchak's whereabouts during the textual "blackout." The first approach is that Yitzchak is busy learning5 in Yeshiva.6 A second approach, found in other midrashim, describes Yitzchak as having died or almost died, or died in a metaphorical sense, depending on nuance. Yitzchak has temporarily retired to the Garden of Eden.
Even though Yitzchak did not die it is deemed as if he died, and his ashes are on the altar... Where was Yitzchak? God took him to the Garden of Eden where he remained for 3 years. (Midrash Hagadol)
Many midrashim see Yitzchak as having died, and Jewish liturgy abounds with references to the Akeida as if it had actually been performed to completion. Most likely, what we are meant to gain from this line of midrashic discussion is this: Avraham's willingness to sacrifice what he loved most for God should be perceived on at least some level as if the offering was brought. On the other hand, Yitzchak ends up in Gan Eden. We might interpret this as referring to a place of spiritual perfection. In a certain sense, both "paradise" and "yeshiva" may be seen as places where someone who has just been raised up on the altar as an olah might go to pursue the religious experience further.
While these explanations fill in the perceived holes of the biblical narrative, perhaps a close reading of the actual text of the Torah can also be instructive. The next time we see Yitzchak, the Torah tells us quite clearly where he has been:
And Yitzchak was on his way, coming from Be'er L'Chai Ro'i (literally, "Well of the Living One, my Beholder"); and he is dwelling in the Negev, and Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field, at the turning of the evening, and he lifted up his eyes, and suddenly saw camels approaching. And Rivka lifted up her eyes, and saw Yitzchak, and alighted from off the camel; and the servant recounted to Yitzchak all the things that he had done, and Yitzchak brought her in to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rivka, and she became his wife, and he loved her, and Yitzchak was comforted after [the death of] his mother. (Bereishit 26:62-67)
Here we find Yitzchak comforted after the death of his mother, so apparently he had been mourning. But where was he? The particular destination of his travels is instructive - Be'er L'chai Ro'i. We have heard of this place before. Hagar gave this place its name when she ran away from her mistress Sarah. Rashi7 notes Yitzchak's choice of destination, and finds within it an indication of the very tender relationship between Avraham and Yitzchak: Yitzchak travelled to Be'er L'chai Ro'i to fetch Hagar, Avraham's estranged wife.8 Avraham is worried about his son, and arranges to bring an appropriate wife for him, while at the same time Yitzchak is concerned about his father's loneliness and brings him a familiar companion.
The Ramban9 focuses on the spiritual qualities of Be'er L'chai Ro'i. Based on the language, he understands that this is a place that Yitzchak frequents.10 This is his designated place of prayer, for this is a place of revelation. An angel appeared to Hagar here; this is a place of prophecy. Given the proximity to his home, he chooses this as his spiritual sanctuary, his refuge of solitude. The Seforno11 even posits that Yitzchak was praying for a bride, and as he utters his prayer - the mission of his father's servant is successfully completed miles away.
The text makes it clear that this trip to Be'er L'chai Ro'i is not an isolated visit. We find that this place later becomes Yitzchak's home. After the death of Avraham, Be'er L'chai Ro'i becomes the place that Yitzchak settles.
And it came to pass after the death of Avraham, that God blessed Yitzchak his son; and Yitzchak dwelled by Be'er L'chai Ro'i.(Bereishit 25:11)
Perhaps Yitzchak's choice of this place for his home is connected with Hagar's12 revelation in a different way: Perhaps within this choice we can sense some type of reconciliation between Yitzchak and Yishmael.13
We know little of the relationship between these two sons of Avraham. Yishmael, the firstborn, was banished soon after Yitzchak's birth, and he headed toward the desert, toward the area of Be'er L'chai Ro'i.14 Is there more in common between Yitzchak and Yishmael than we might have thought? Is there any unity between these brothers? The answer would seem to be a resounding yes! Immediately before the choice of Yitzchak's residence is mentioned we are told that Avraham passed away, and his burial was tended to by both sons:
And Avraham expired, and died in a good old age, aged and satisfied, and was gathered unto his people. And Yitzchak and Yishmael his sons buried him at the cave of Machpelah, at the field of Ephron, son of Tzoar the Hittite, which [is] before Mamre. (Bereishit 25:8-9)
Yitzchak and Yishmael bury their father together, united. Perhaps Yitzchak's forays to Be'er L'chai Ro'i have paid dividends and now we have healing in the family. A family once divided has now achieved a semblance of unity. Perhaps as long as Sarah was alive, Yitzchak could not make this move, for it was his mother who had demanded the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael. After Sarah's death Yitzchak is free to try and bring people together. With Avraham's death Yitchak goes one step further and chooses to live with Yishmael in Be'er L'chai Ro'i. Perhaps Yitzchak, being the reason for Yishmael's expulsion, feels a special responsibility to bring the family together.
This analysis may help us understand another relationship - the relationship between Yitzchak and his ne'er-do-well son Esav. Perhaps Yitzchak, as the favored son, has made a conscious decision not expel a son from his home despite his faults. He has seen the results of such expulsions; he seeks to heal rather than to divide or cause further estrangement.
When the Torah describes Yitzchak's love for Esav, the particulars make it sound strange, limited, even conditional.
And Yitzchak loved Esau, for [his] hunting [is] in his mouth; and Rivka loves Jacob. (Bereishit 25:28)
How strange: he loves his son because he brings him food?! Perhaps Yitzchak is searching for a reason - any reason - to love his son. This is not at all like the unconditional love Rivka has for her son Ya'akov. Yet Yitzchak is unwilling to give up on Esav, even though he pales in comparison to Ya'akov. Yitzchak finds a task Esav is capable of, even well-suited to: He asks him to bring him food. When Yitzchak gets older and wishes to bless his son, again he looks for Esav's positive attributes and asks him to bring him food.
Ya'akov, dressed as Esav, enters his room, and Yitzchak takes a moment to enjoy the aroma of the meal, of the goats his son has brought him. Rashi questions this particular pleasure, noting that few odors are as unsavory as the stench of goats. What did Yitzchak smell? Rashi's answer is surprising: It is the bouquet of Gan Eden, the aroma of paradise. That was a smell familiar to Yitzchak: he once lived there. Yitzchak paused to recall this scent, to retrieve this sensory memory.
The Torah tells us that at this point Yitzchak was blind. Rashi16 explains that this was due to the tears of the angels who cried during the Akeida. Two of Yitzchak's senses, then, were affected by the same singular experience - the Akeida. In other words, after being raised up on the altar, Yitzchak's sight is forever altered. But what is the nature of Yitzchak's perception, and what is the extent of his vision? Is he somehow damaged? Is he naive regarding his son's shortcomings, seeing less than we do - or does he perhaps see much more?
Yitzchak clearly sees differently: He sees through the prism of his Akeida experience, an experience that took him directly to Gan Eden. Eden is a place deep in the past of our collective conscience. It is also a place in the future. It represents a world perfected, and it represents a perfect world. This is how Yitzchak saw, not through the jaundiced eye that most people use as a spectrum, which diffuses the good and focuses on the bad. Yitzchak saw the world from the perspective of the Garden of Eden. He saw perfection. He saw the culmination of history, the realization of the process of redemption, the return to the perfected state of Eden. He saw the future.
Yitzchak's entire being is intertwined with this perspective, this type of sight or perception that focuses on the future.17 Even his name, which represents the essence of his being, means "will laugh" - in the future. This is the real meaning of the midrashim that tell us that Yitzchak went from the Akeida to Gan Eden: His eyes were "fixed" at the Akeida, his perception altered. Now he had perfect vision. Now he saw a perfect world. He saw the world from the vantage point of Eden.
That perspective, that perception, gave him the ability, even the courage, to approach a person like Yishmael, and to attempt to create harmony from the dissonance. Yitzchak saw that Yishmael can and will do teshuva, that Yishmael can and will come to recognize that there is One God.
The Meshech Chochma18 describes the repentance of the descendents of Yishmael and Esav in the messianic age as another example of "the acts of the fathers are a sign for the children." Because of the actions of Yitzchak, Yishmael did return, as will his children. Because of the actions of Yitzchak, Esav remained close to his father, and his descendents will return to the fold in the future. Because Yitzchak was willing to live in the place that had spiritual importance to Yishmael, and by so doing to validate Yishmael's nascent monotheistic feelings, Yishmael and Yitzchak were able to coexist. What Yitzchak may or may not have been able to see was that while his action in the present was due to his perception of the future, what he saw in future was a result of his actions in the present. Would that we could all see the world through rose-colored, "Eden" glasses.
1. A version of this essay with Hebrew sources and footnotes can be found at http://arikahn.blogspot.com/.
2. See Rabbenu Bachya Bereishit 23:2.
4. The basic quandary created by the Akeida is that on the one hand Yitzchak is the progeny through whom God has promised to fulfill His blessings, while on the other hand Yitzchak is to be killed. Rav Soloveitchik quoting his grandfather, describes this as a classic case of two verses contradicting one another, and a third verse which reconciles the two.
Mystical sources have insisted that Yitzchak did, in fact, die at the Akeida, an idea found in various midrashim. The Ari"zal claims that Yitzchak, who would have been childless, dies, and a new soul which can father children enters his body. Thus, it was the Akeida that made the fulfillment of Gods's promises to Avraham possible.
5. See Bereishit Rabbah 56:11, Targum pseudo Yonatan Bereishit 22:19.
6. The Netziv (Ha'amek Davar 22:19) postulates that specifically now after hearing how Avraham is being rewarded for obeying God's command, Yitzchak decides it is time for him to learn what it is that God wants of him.
7. Rashi 24:62.
8. See Bereishit 16:1 Hagar is referred to as Sarah's servant in 16:3. A few verses later when she is presented to Avraham it is as a wife. Later (this time by the angel) she is referred to, once again, as a servant of Sarah. See Bereishit 16:8.
9. Ramban, Bereishit 24:62.
10. The Ramban also suggests that perhaps this place is within close proximity to Avraham's Eshel - hence Yitzchak is praying in a place that Avraham had prayed.
11. Seforno 24:62.
12. The Kli Yakar (25:1) identifies Ketura with Hagar and says that she, too, repented and began a "new life." 13. The Beer Mayim Chaim says that Yishmael was sent away because he was a bad influence; he was a thief. Yet Yitzchak reaches out to him, despite his wayward behavior, because Yishmael is a monotheist.
14. See Bereishit 21:14,21.
15. Rashi Bereishit 27:27.
16. Rashi Bereishit 27:1.
17. According to the Zohar Bereishit 114a even God's future laughing will be related to Yitzchak.
18. Meshech Chochma Bereishit 15:15.