Table for Five: Chayei Sara
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the Cave of Machpelah in the field of Ephron, the son of Zohar the Hittite, which faces Mamre. -Gen. 25:9
Rabbi Peretz Rodman, Head of Masorti Bet Din of Israel
How did Abraham’s sons come together to bury him? Not only did Isaac have to get past his father’s attempt to sacrifice him, and not only did Ishmael have to come to terms with his father’s having banished him and his mother from the family homestead, but after much conflict, the brothers themselves had to become reconciled, at least briefly. Where did they learn to accomplish that?
There is a hint in the verse, “in the field of Ephron….” It was in his negotiations with Ephron and the other Hittites of Hevron (Gen. 23) that Abraham learned the first lesson in conflict resolution.
Abraham’s attempts to purchase the Machpelah cave are punctuated by a repeating verb, listen. In every exchange in that dialogue, the speaker says to his interlocutor, “You’re not listening” or “If only you’d listen.” Only when the narrator tells us, “And Abraham listened” is the logjam broken and the negotiation successfully concluded.
What did Abraham hear? Perhaps he heard Ephron’s difficulty, the problem he had in selling off part of the patrimony he was to steward for coming generations. Gaining recognition that he was being asked for something more than a simple sale of property enabled Ephron to cede that bit of land to Abraham.
What might Abraham’s sons have learned, then? Perhaps to say to each other, “What I did surely hurt you.” Or “You must resent me for how I (or my mother, or our father) acted.” Listening is the first step in reconciliation.
Rabbi Ari Segal, Head of School, Shalhevet High School
The American author Edward Everett Hale is quoted as saying “coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.” Our community – really, the whole Jewish community at large – is incredibly adept at coming together in hard times. The accord we felt as an entire nation when three boys were tragically kidnapped and murdered more than five years ago will always be remembered as a brief period of achdus (unity) as a people.
More recently, the tragedies in Pittsburgh and in Poway sent a tremendously far-reaching message of communal strength and love, creating a trending hashtag (#PittsburghStrong), and even resulting in a viral video of an airline pilot wishing the Rabbi of Chabad at Poway a whole lot of love.
“[Avraham’s] sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael, buried him in the Cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron.” The Midrash, quoted here by Rashi, says that Avraham’s two sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael, two clashing, opposite forces, coming together after so many years to bury their father is what allows Avraham to “reach a good, old age.” When a father is passing away, brothers reconcile and see through their differences; indeed, even people as far apart as Yitzchak and Yishmael can come together in the face of shared tragedy.
If this ability to come together is so latent in our nature, why can’t we come together as a people without heartbreak? Can’t we manage without a tragedy, God forbid, in order to be there for our neighbors? Can we come together in times of good?
Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Jewish Studies Faculty
I’m an only child. I always wondered what it would have been like to have had a sibling — someone who might have looked like me, who would have shared the experiences of growing up in my family. Certainly, like Isaac and Ishmael, not all siblings get along. But at the end of the day, even Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father.
When my father (z”l) died, my husband, in-laws, and friends were a pillar to my mother and me, but at the same time, we also felt alone. As I grow older, I am ever more jealous of those who have the support and comfort of a large family, and ever more grateful for all the friends and family that I do have.
My attitude about having my own children was “one at a time.” After my husband and I had our first child, we had a second. But we soon learned that our second child had a serious genetic condition called Angelman Syndrome which would severely limit his cognitive and physical development. Even though this rare condition is not inherited — it is a random genetic mutation — it was frightening to consider having more children. But how could we not? When our third beautiful son was born, we were relieved that our oldest and our youngest could be there for each other in our unique family dynamic. The brothers may not always get along, but we hope they will share the load as only siblings can.
Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Pressman Academy and director of STARS Addiction Recovery
Looking at this verse, I would be remiss not to jump on the fact that we see Isaac and Ishmael working together. Rashi explains that Ishmael repented, and that’s why we see him now involved in the burial. This verse gets attention because Ishmael and Hagar had been banished from Avraham’s household. The commentaries note that Ishmael tried to harm Isaac, so Sarah wanted him sent away.
At this point in the Torah we know that they came together to bury their father and are righteous. With all the contention in the world between Jews and Muslims, we see there is a way to not only live together but to work hand in hand. Examples include the exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance of pictures from Palestinian and Israeli women building bridges, the regeneration project which started the first ever Abrahamic Faith Student Leadership team for middle school students in LA from different faiths, and Pressman Academy’s concerted effort to bring dialogue and action between Jews and Muslims.
Pressman Academy’s partnership with Islah Academy embodies Isaac and Ishmael working together. Two diverse communities coming together to have Shabbat dinner, an Iftar, or as we will do next month, open a Clippers game with an original song we wrote which will hopefully inspire the 19,000 fans at Staples Center to see that Isaac and Ishmael are not mortal enemies but partners in bringing morality, love, and understanding to our broken world.
Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Sinai Temple
Ishmael’s voice is physically silent, but his presence is clearly not far from Isaac’s mind. We must put ourselves in the brothers’ shoes. Separated by a jealous mother, perhaps never really understanding the reasoning behind the estrangement. Conceivably wondering who was to blame. Hoping to find each other and retrieve the brother that was quickly taken away.
Murray Bowen is best known for his Family Systems Theory, in which each person in the family is emotionally interconnected, woven through the psyche of the other. Even if one family member is miles upon miles away or hasn’t spoken to another in years, our human emotions are interdependent. Feelings, thoughts and behavior are so intertwined that sometimes, one person’s anxiety or happiness is further manifested by the rest of the family. Yes, all families differ. But according to Bowen, family members have the power to influence and shape each other’s minds…more than perhaps we ever realize or choose to admit.
The reunion of the brothers occurs during the burial of Abraham. Physically brought together but perhaps, unconsciously, never far apart. Though we try to brush off our most difficult familial relations, our minds and souls won’t let us get away that quickly. Where there is strife between brothers, there are two hearts broken in the scuffle. Let us pray for the jagged edges of our hearts to eventually come back together. Not perfectly repaired, but reunited, nonetheless.
Family hurts… but notably, when brought face to face, family has the power to heal.
With thanks to Rabbi Peretz Rodman, Rabbi Ari Segal, Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Rabbi Chaim Tureff, and Nili Isenberg.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.
Read more at the Jewish Journal.