Friday, November 6, 2015

Abraham's Peace: Parashat Chayei Sarah

            Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s Torah portion, we start to transition from the story of Abraham and Sarah to the story of Isaac and Rebecca. The portion, named Chayei Sarah, or, “the life of Sarah,” starts off with Sarah’s death, followed by Abraham’s pursuit of a wife for Isaac. Once Isaac is married off, our Torah is almost ready to shift the focus completely to him and Rebecca, but first we have some loose ends to tie off with Abraham.
Widowed Abraham gets married again and has more children, this time to someone our text names as Ketura but our tradition tells us is Hagar, the mother of his first child. When the hour arrives for Abraham to prepare for his own death, the Torah tells us that he gives all that he has to Isaac, which presumably refers to land and the inherited role of the family’s patriarch, because the next line says that Abraham also gave gifts to all his sons but he sends them to the east away from Isaac. Just as he had sent Ishmael away to preserve the family peace and ensure Isaac inherited all the land promised him, Abraham does the same to his younger children, this time without having to be told. Our father Abraham, ever the intuitive peace-maker.
After Abraham dies, “God blessed his son Isaac.” The classic midrashic text, Bereshit Rabbah, offers a parable on this:
Not blessings but gifts Abraham gave Isaac. This is like a king who owned an orchard and gave it to a tenant-farmer to tend. Two trees grew there, entangled with one another: one grew vital potions, and one grew fatal poisons. The farmer said: “If I water the vital tree, the fatal one will be nourished too. But if I don’t water the fatal one, how will the vital one live?” He concluded: “I am merely a tenant-farmer, in temporary charge of the orchard. Let me finish my duty and then let the owner decide what to do.” So said Abraham: “If I bless Isaac now, the sons of Ishmael and Ketura will be included. And if I don’t bless them, how can I bless Isaac?” He concluded: “I am merely flesh and blood – here today and gone tomorrow. I have already done what I had to do. From this point on, let God do what He wishes in His world.” When he died, God revealed himself to Isaac and blessed him. (Bereshit Rabbah 61:5)
I think this could be read as saying that the other children of Abraham are like the poisonous tree: inseparable yet unwanted; dangerous yet entangled with us. You could read God’s decision to bless Isaac Godself after the death of Abraham as saying that Isaac was somehow wholly better than his brothers, more deserving of goodness, and use that as justification for the Jewish “chosen-ness.” Themes of nationalism and supremacy do exist in our texts, and this could be read as one of them. But it could also be read as the ultimate move in Abraham’s life of peace-keeping. He knew, as God had told him, it would be through Isaac that the true heirs of Abraham’s blessing would come into the world. But he still couldn’t bring himself to play favorites with his children. In next week’s portion, we will hear the words of Esau, distraught that Jacob has received his blessing, as he cries out, “Bless me too, Father. Have you only one blessing?” It appears that indeed, there is only one blessing to go around for each generation of this family, and Abraham is not willing to make Ishmael or his younger sons feel the way Esau will feel at Isaac’s silence. So, he blesses none. He withholds the blessing that was granted for him to give, and he gives away only his earthly possessions, dividing them, albeit unevenly, among all his children. Our father Abraham, ever the intuitive peace-keeper.
In world with a sad lack of peace, let us all strive to be a little more like Abraham. May we see the world in all its complexities and nuances, may we seek to treat those around us fairly and equally, and may we ever be more concerned with peace and justice, within our families, our communities, and the world. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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