Shabbat Hayyei Sarah: The Grace to Open

וַיִּקְבְּר֨וּ אֹת֜וֹ יִצְחָ֤ק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל֙ בָּנָ֔יו אֶל־מְעָרַ֖ת הַמַּכְפֵּלָ֑ה אֶל־שְׂדֵ֞ה עֶפְרֹ֤ן בֶּן־צֹ֙חַר֙ הַֽחִתִּ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י מַמְרֵֽא

His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre. (Bereshit 25.9)

Sooner or later it happens to us: death comes to those who have had a part, for better or for worse, in forming our lives. We are left to ponder what that influence means. It is said that those who have not yet come to closure are the most torn, for now that emotional work is brought into sharp, insistent focus

Consider Isaac and Ishmael, as they are brought together by the death of Abraham. Ishmael, first born, suddenly sent away, through no fault of his own, by his father one day with his mother, abandoned, left to survive – or not. Isaac, nearly murdered by that same father who seems too distracted by his own divine visions to notice what they cost those around him. 

No wonder both sons disappear from the narrative. It is simple self-preservation that causes us to pull back from contact with one who harms us; for some, leaving family of origin behind is the only way to live a life of love and the search for meaning, which is, as Victor Frankl demonstrated, the only real happiness. 

But our Jewish tradition not only teaches that atonement and reconciliation are possible and positive, but also that we are to honor parents. This parashah ends with an amazing tableau: Isaac and Ishmael joining together to bury Abraham. To bury their father is a mark of respect for Abraham; to come together to do so speaks of some kind of reconciliation with all that caused these siblings to be distanced from him, and each other.

And we find that according to Rashi, drawing on the midrashic understanding of what the Torah means in its description of Abraham dying בְּשֵׂיבָ֥ה טוֹבָ֖ה – b’seyvah tovah, “at a good contented age” (Bereshit 25.8) – we are to understand that Ishmael and Isaac were indeed able to come together and to find peace with each other.

How did they find the grace to be reconciled to each other, and to their father, sufficient to draw them together at his grave? This kind of Hesed, although it may alight upon us without warning, does not come without openness. And openness is not easy in this harsh world.

Yet closing off from pain also means closing off from joy. It’s the same door. So how are we to find our way forward on the spiritual journey of a lifetime, and go on past that which hurts?

A Hasidic parable compares our emotional pain to falling in a mud puddle. It makes sense to get up, get cleaned off, and avoid that spot again. Similarly, we must move away from the pain, do what it takes to heal from it, and move on. To revisit the pain, through anger or other emotional ego traps of the yetzer hara’, is nothing less than jumping back into the mud. It makes no sense, and it does not bring joy.

Jewish ethical teaching does not tell us to forgive a bad parent. Forgiving and forgetting, however, are two different things. We are to learn from that which hurts us, yes; but to let that define our lives is to close the door to all that life might mean, and bring.

Ishmael and Isaac demonstrate for us that gestures of honor and respect are still possible. Is it because they are treating Abraham as they wish to be treated by their children? Standing there together, they refuse to let their father’s acts define their relationship and their lives. It is telling, though no midrash (that I could find) notes it, that they bury their father in the cave of Makhpelah, עַל־פְּנֵ֥י מַמְרֵֽא – al p’nei Mamre, “facing Mamre.” Mamre is closely associated with their mom, and with the divine feminine. In so doing they are, perhaps, offering us a consolation:

שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּעֲל֗וֹת לְדָ֫וִ֥ד הֹ’ 

לֹא־גָבַ֣הּ לִ֭בִּי וְלֹא־רָמ֣וּ עֵינַ֑י 

וְלֹֽא־הִלַּ֓כְתִּי  בִּגְדֹל֖וֹת 

וּבְנִפְלָא֣וֹת מִמֶּֽנִּי

A song of ascents, of David.

O HaShem, my heart is not proud

nor my eyes patronizing;

I do not aspire to great things

or to what is beyond me

אִם־לֹ֤א שִׁוִּ֨יתִי  וְדוֹמַ֗מְתִּי נַ֫פְשִׁ֥י 

כְּ֭גָמֻל עֲלֵ֣י אִמּ֑וֹ כַּגָּמֻ֖ל עָלַ֣י נַפְשִֽׁי

but I have learned to be content

like a child with its mother;

like a small child I seem to myself.

– Psalm 131.1-2

It is the child in us that is badly hurt by life, and the hurt of those who are the caregivers meant to nurture and protect us is profound. Yet we mature, and we learn, and we grow. 

Whether it was a parent who first destroyed trust, or a loved partner, or a trusted friend or mentor who betrayed us, Jewish tradition urges us: don’t let that define you. Ishmael and Isaac challenge you: don’t even let that define the relationship. 

Explore your capacity for openness despite everything. Join hands with others in Torah learning through the pain; avail yourself of thousands of years of human struggle and painful triumph over it. You’ll find you’re not alone. You’ll find others struggling, and growing, and learning the Hesed that we cannot earn, but when we are able to be open, alights, in a blessed moment, upon even our darkest moments.

Shabbat Shalom

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