Dr. Erica Brown, a Jewish scholar and author, wrote a book called Happier Endings. Similar to a story I shared yesterday, she writes that a rabbi she knows shared with her the story of a dying man who was losing capacity to speak. He had an estranged son who hadn’t finished college. The father had disapproved of his son’s professional ambitions and lack of them. In his criticism of his son, the son pulled away. Now the father was dying and his wife went to the rabbi to express her pain over the estrangement between her husband and son.
What do you think the rabbi should do?
Today we reread Binding of Issac. It’s a story we think we know so well. Yet, by looking for some tiny clues, particularly from the aftermath of the story —we’re going to come up with what rabbi should do and then learn what he actually did do.
In our culture, we are used to Hollywood endings. The heroes overcome their challenge and ride off into the sunset. We know know that in the end Abraham does not kill Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The story, though, does not have a Hollywood ending. Have you ever noticed that Abraham and Isaac do not walk off together? Have you ever noticed that they never speak to each other again? After this episode, the very next piece of information we learn about the house of Abraham is that Sarah dies, presumably from shock over the news from Mt. Moriah.
There are tragic consequences to the Akeidah. More than a paradigm of faith, the Akeidah is the ultimate recipe for how to screw up a family. Within this complex story, though, or at least in its aftermath, we find a layer of hope and redemption. Who is the hero of the redemption of this family? Without a doubt, it is Isaac. This may come as a surprise. Because of his submission in the binding episode, we tend to regard Isaac as passive. A fresh reading of the text yields a new perspective of Isaac. The secret to understanding Isaac’s greatness lies in a map.
We know from the end of the Binding of Isaac narrative that Abraham travels to Beersheva, a distance of more than forty miles. This is curious because we are told in the next chapter that Sarah dies and is buried in Hevron, only 20 miles from Jerusalem. This suggests that Abraham knowingly bypassed Hevron on his way to Beersheva. He knew Sarah was there and would probably kill him if she heard about the Akeidah. We suspect word does reach her soon enough, and indeed she dies from the shock. Abraham retraces his steps and walks 20 miles back to Hevron to bury Sarah.
Meanwhile, Isaac is missing in action. He does not accompany his father to Beersheva and is not present at his mother’s funeral in Hevron. This is odd because we’re told later how sad Isaac was over the death of his mother and that he does not overcome his grief until he marries Rebecca. So where is Isaac? In the lead-up to Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca, we are finally told his location, Beer Lahai Ro’i (Gen 24: 62). This is an oasis deep in the Negev desert, perhaps another 40 miles from Beersheva. After the Akeidah, Isaac ran as far away as he could from his father and the life he knew. Except, there are two people in Beer Lahai Ro’i whom Isaac knows and knows well: Hagar, Abraham’s second wife, and Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother. We read about their banishment from the house of Abraham on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. When we learn from the Torah that Be’er Lahai Ro’i becomes Isaac’s home, bells should go off in our minds that he went to live near Hagar and Ishmael.
Isaac probably heard stories from his father over the dinner table about how evil Hagar and Ishmael were, but after the Akeidah, Isaac sees the world differently. Isaac now understands what it’s like to be abandoned. Hagar and Ishmael are the only two people on earth who would understand the trauma he experienced with his father. Moreover, he understands what they went through when they were banished into the desert.
We have no record of any conversations in Beer Lahai Ro’i. We only know that when Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael bury their father together at the Cave of Machpelah. This often overlooked scene is one of the most powerful in the Bible: Isaac and Ishmael, sons of Abraham and fathers of two separate nations, stand side by side in brotherhood at their father’s grave.
Think about all that transpired beforehand. The family of Abraham had collapsed. Hagar and Ishmael had been banished, and Isaac had nearly been killed on the altar. Abraham feels he will never be forgiven and cannot face Sarah ever again. Sarah, to the extent she was able to process the events before her death, probably felt betrayed and abandoned. Five people, five lives, five hearts wracked by pain.
I believe that Isaac earned his greatness as a patriarch by doing the quiet work behind the scenes to enable this reconciliation to occur. When Isaac emerges from the trauma on Mt. Moriah, he could have taken different routes. A more outward-driven personality might have seized the moment for PR. He could have broadcast his victimhood to the world. Had he been alive today he could have made millions off of a book deal or reality TV show. That is not Isaac’s approach. Rabbi Sharon Brous calls the aftermath of the Akeidah Isaac’s “birth moment of empathy.”
Isaac is not passive, but he’s also not a publicity hound. He actively works behind the scenes to change the picture. He broke with the script that we find in too many families. Instead of living with hurt and resentment, Isaac directs his pain towards a path of renewal. He taps into his pain to seek out an opportunity for reconciliation. Earlier, the pain was so raw he couldn’t even bear to meet his father at his own mother’s funeral. We might have forgiven Isaac if he had gone to live out his years as a hermit in a cave all by himself. Isaac understands, though, the need to connect. He may feel abandoned by his father, but he is not resigned to a life of abandonment.Through Isaac’s insight and courageous initiative, the sons of Abraham reconciled.
Isaac’s example provides an important guide for us today. We, like Isaac, feel a need to connect with others. Yet, like Isaac, we also feel the weight of baggage in our families. Many of us bear the weight of family narratives of the past. Some of us might broadcast how much we were slighted by someone else because we feel that victimhood brings us sympathy. In truth, we are only hurting ourselves by cultivating pain and resentment. There is a different path.
Healing takes place through quiet acts of kindness and decency. Our natural reflex from infancy is to think only of ourselves. However, when we learn how to turn towards others, we open ourselves to healing and wholeness that will enrich our lives.
Returning to the story of the rabbi and the estranged father and son, the mother desperately longed for her son and the father to reconcile before he died. She knew that the key would be for the father to apologize to the son so that he could go on with his life without such a heavy burden. She couldn’t bring herself to broach the topic with her husband, so she turned to the rabbi.
The rabbi goes in to speak to the father. He said, “I know you can’t speak much, but I need to know if you can say two words, ‘I’m sorry.’” The father said yes. Then the rabbi said, “I need you to say three more words: ‘I love you.’ Can you do that? That’s the only thing you need to do before you leave this world.” The father agreed. The rabbi called the son. He said he couldn’t believe his father wanted to speak to him, but the rabbi insisted that he really did. The son went ahead but wanted his mother to come with him. The mother pushed him into the bedroom alone. Forty-five minutes later the son came out, his face awash in tears. He said, “Dad said sorry, and Dad loves me.” The rabbi facilitated that moment because this family was stuck and couldn’t get there on their own. The mother is also a hero for recognizing the importance of reconciliation and seeking help to realize it. This moment was transformational for every member of that family, allowing the father to go in peace, allowing the mother to live in peace and allowing the son to not live with the burden of his father’s judgement.
Both father and son in this story could have protected their pride and avoided each other. Had that continued, they would have carried their pain and estrangement into eternity. Instead, they found a way to open their hearts to bring about healing and closure. This is the type of work we all should do now. Let’s not wait for death bed reconciliations. Instead, let us follow a roadmap to healing. Let this be the year we open our hearts to heal ourselves, our families and our world.