Rabbi Jonathan's Teachings
Where Did Isaac Go?
From the 2nd Day of Rosh Hashanah, 5769/2008
Rabbi Jonathan Kligler
We now approach the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the story of the binding of Isaac. This narrative may indeed be the most famous and most perpetually fascinating and troubling chapter in the Torah. I personally never seem to tire of reflecting on it, which I think is a sign of its greatness.
This year I want to draw our attention to the very end of the narrative, after the drama of the angel stopping Abraham’s hand, and of the ram appearing in the bushes. Following this, there is an anomaly in the text that has been the source of much interesting commentary, and I wish to add my own modest addition to that corpus today.
Abraham offers the ram in place of his son Isaac, and then God blesses Abraham for his steadfast faith with a promise that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands of the seashore, and that through Abraham’s descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. And then the text reads: “Abraham then returned to his servant lads; they got up and traveled to Be’er Sheva, and Abraham settled in Be’er Sheva.”
What is wrong with this verse?
Isaac is nowhere to be found. In fact, we do not hear from Isaac again until the end of two long and eventful chapters from now, when he reappears as his betrothed, Rebecca, approaches on a camel. When Abraham returns to his servant lads, where is Isaac? The Torah presents us with a classic and juicy midrashic opening, an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the Torah by filling in the blanks.
When I was growing up in yeshiva, Jewish Day School, we learned the standard explanation: Isaac, instead of coming home with Abraham, traveled to the yeshiva, the house of study, of Shem and Ever, and studied there for three years. I bet you didn’t know there were yeshivas in the time of Abraham! But that is the beauty of midrash: we reflect our own reality onto the ancient text. Shem was one of the 3 sons of Noah, and Ever was his great grandson. They are Abraham’s forebears, and remember, those first generations in Genesis lived a very, very long time. So if you do the math, they were still alive when Isaac was born, and Jacob, for that matter. So the midrash assigns Shem and Ever the role of the keepers and transmitters of sacred wisdom, and they train the patriarchs in the ways of Torah. In the midrash, Abraham even tells Sarah at the time of his departure with Isaac that he is taking Isaac away to the yeshiva, and Sarah of course assents.
That’s a good story. During the Crusades, when many Jews were forced to choose martyrdom rather than accept forced conversion, a different and much starker midrash emerges. There are multiple accounts from that period of Jewish parents choosing to suffocate their children and then kill themselves, given that the only alternative fate was that the children would be swept up forcibly into the Crusade. And so a telling emerges that Isaac actually died on the mountain, and his soul ascended to heaven. Abraham returns by himself. It is only afterward that God and the angels, in their mercy, restore Isaac to life.
I find other clues in the Torah text that lead me to a more contemporary telling, one that, like all good midrash, is grounded in the Torah’s narrative, but that, as you will see, reflects concerns of our moment and worldview.
Where did Isaac go? Well, when we next hear from Isaac in Chapter 24, verse 62, Sarah has passed away. Isaac is about to meet Rebecca for the first time. Here is what the text says: “Now Isaac was coming from the direction of Be’er Lachai Ro’i, for he was living in the Negev.” So the Torah tells us where Isaac has been: he has been living at Be’er Lachai Ro’i. And what is Be’er Lachai Ro’i? We learn of it in Chapter 16 of Genesis. Sarah’s slave Hagar, who is pregnant with Abraham’s child, has run away from Abraham and Sarah because of Sarah’s cruel treatment of her. She stops at a spring. An angel of God calls to her and promises her that she will bear a son and that all will be well. Hagar must return to her mistress. Hagar calls to God and says, “You are El Ro’i”, meaning, “you are the God who sees me”. Thus that spring bears the name Be’er Lachai Ro’i, The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me. The son she bears to Abraham she names Ishmael, meaning “God hears”.
When Hagar and Ishmael are ultimately banished to the wilderness, I say they returned to this oasis, and Hagar raised her son there. And apparently, this is where Isaac is living as well in the wake of the akedah. What are we to make of this?
I say: Isaac and Ishmael loved each other. I say: Isaac’s heart was broken when his brother Ishmael and his brother’s mother Hagar were forced to leave their home. Ishmael was his brother, and Hagar was a second mother to him. They were his family. Isaac traveled there out of his yearning to make whole his broken family. In some ways every family is broken. We all share this yearning to make whole, to bring together, to repair the rifts in our families. Sometimes we can make a difference, sometimes there is nothing that can be done. Often, a death in the family paradoxically opens the door to healing. Perhaps Sarah’s death opened this door. I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken with families in which a family member is dying or has just passed, and a family member says to me: yes, of course, it’s terribly hard and sad, but we haven’t been together like this in so many years, it is really beautiful, too. I haven’t felt this close to my family in years, they will tell me, it is such a gift. It is supreme grace when this kind of healing takes place for a family; one cannot plan on it or count on it, but one can be open to the possibility, and ready to reconcile. The Jewish name for this healing is teshuvah.
In my midrash, Isaac does teshuvah with Ishmael. He does what he can to put their parents’ conflicts behind them, and to restore their bond as brothers.
The Torah gives us a signal that Isaac and Ishmael did indeed reconcile. The next time we hear about the two of them is at the time of Abraham’s death. The Torah says, “And Abraham died at a ripe old age…His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah… there Abraham and Sarah his wife were buried.” Isaac and Ishmael bury their father together. This alone would not be enough to assume the brothers had done teshuvah with each other, but the Torah then adds: “After the death of Abraham, God blessed Isaac, and Isaac settled at Be’er Lachai Ro’i.” I say: Isaac and Ishmael reconciled, at the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.
For Be’er Lachai Ro’i is much more than a physical location, it is a state of being, it is a condition of consciousness. It is the place where we are seen, truly, for who we are: children of the divine, unique individuals, beings of infinite worth. It is the place where God sees Ishmael “as he is”, as a boy in desperate need of help, and responds. It is the well that Jacob figuratively stands by when he approaches his brother Esau and looks him in the face for the first time, and exclaims, “Seeing you is liking seeing the face of God”. We dwell at the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me whenever someone says to us “you really see me”, and their defenses melt away. We dwell at the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me when we find ourselves peering into the bottomless wells of another’s eyes, and they into ours, and all preconditions and grudges and judgments momentarily evaporate as we face the mystery of our shared being. We dwell at the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me when we know that even on our deathbed the capacity for healing and love is ever-present. We dwell at the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me at this season, during these Days of Awe, when we ask one another for forgiveness, when we manage to cry over our losses and laugh at our foibles and approach one another with humility and love.
In my midrash about our first family, which is every family, reconciliation is sometimes possible. Not always, certainly, but sometimes. But for that possibility to ever manifest, like Isaac we must first make our way to Be’er Lachai Ro’i. We must first stand where we see each other as God saw young Ishmael, as beings of infinite worth, precious in our eyes. So may it be.