Chayei Sarah and the Case of the Missing Person
By Rabbi Fred Morgan, Senior Rabbi
Temple Beth Israel, Melbourne, Australia
Eleven years ago my son celebrated his bar-mitzvah on Shabbat Chayei Sarah. As rabbi of the congregation, I always knew what I was going to say on his bar-mitzvah. Though he was born during Sukkot he had been due on Yom Kippur, and that had presented me with a challenging dilemma. What could I speak about on Yom Kippur that would honestly reflect my sense of nervous anticipation? So, at the time I had composed a “testament for my unborn child”, a statement that expressed my hopes and dreams for my son.
I knew that I would revisit this testament on my son’s bar-mitzvah; that I would weigh my hopes and prayers for him against the reality of the boy standing on the bimah. Some time before Shabbat Chayei Sarah I went to find the testament that I had written those 13 years before. But in the interim we had moved from England to Australia. Not surprisingly, I no longer remembered where I had filed the document. I searched everywhere but I could not find it. I went through all my files, I tipped over boxes of papers, I turned my study inside out – all to no avail. I was completely distraught.
Then it hit me. There was no need for me to refer to the “testament for my unborn child”. My child was now a man, a person in his own right. Why would I need to speak about a phantom of my imagination, when the reality would be standing before me and the rest of the congregation in the synagogue? My son didn’t need me to conjure him up out of my dreams and prayers. His presence would say it all. The reality would be far more striking and imposing than any testament I could deliver. He was no longer the projection of his father’s desires; he had become a real person – his own person. His bar-mitzvah was the celebration of this very process. It marked his true entry into Jewish adulthood, becoming responsible for himself and his actions before the community.
There is a powerful connection between this process of growing up, of becoming an independent, responsible human being, and the portion Chayei Sarah. Among many important themes, this week’s portion describes the life journey of our patriarch Isaac from childhood to adulthood. What is remarkable, and unsettling, about the depiction of Isaac’s journey in this portion is that he is largely absent from it. His journey must be intuited through other people’s deeds, which somehow reveal their own perceptions of Isaac. Isaac is not consulted about these deeds. His dreams are invisible in the text.
In the first part of Chayei Sarah, Abraham seeks a burial place for his wife Sarah. He eventually concludes a deal to purchase the cave of Machpelah in Chevron. Lost in the intricacies of the story, it is easy for us to overlook the fact that Sarah is not only Abraham’s wife; she is also Isaac’s mother. Yet Isaac does not appear in the narrative. He has no say in the funeral of his mother.
He is similarly conspicuous by his absence from the story that follows. Abraham has grown old, and he decides his son Isaac must have a wife. Deciding against marrying Isaac to one of the local Canaanite girls, he sends his trusted servant back to his relations in the old country to find Isaac a wife. The servant decides on his own course of action, and the entire story focuses on the negotiations between the servant and Rebecca’s brother Laban. Isaac is nowhere to be seen in the narrative. He exists only through the perceptions of others. He has no personality of his own.
Isaac’s personality emerges only after the servant returns with the bride and the shidduch is completed. The Torah tells us that Rebecca comforts Isaac for his mother. We generally understand this to mean that Isaac, having suffered at the hands of his overbearing father (in the episode known as the Akedah), transfers his dependence on his mother to his new wife. But perhaps, as well, Isaac’s exclusion from his mother’s funeral has left him feeling diminished, and Rebecca’s attentions provide him with a liberating sense of self-worth.
When, near the conclusion of Chayei Sarah, Abraham himself dies, we are told that his funeral rites are handled by Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac finally emerges as a personality in his own right. He takes on the responsibilities of an adult in the family, both in practical terms by organizing the funeral for his father, and in emotional terms by reconciling with his brother who had equally been wounded by the actions of Abraham and Sarah.
As an adult in the family, Isaac does not need a testament from another person to testify to his qualities. Isaac is his own testament. For better or for worse, but as a responsible individual, he testifies for himself. Through the events of this portion, he has come of age. Next week’s portion rightly opens with the words “v’eileh tol’dot Yitzchak”, this is the story of Isaac.
There is a confronting lesson for the Jewish community in this narrative. We Jews sometimes find it difficult to allow others to testify for themselves, to give them a presence and allow them to make their voice heard. All too often we act as though our own testament is final, and whatever the other person has to say for themselves is not worth hearing. We render them invisible, like Isaac in Chayei Sarah, and then we are amazed when they take umbrage or protest that they have been silenced. Sometimes it is more valuable for us to lose our script than to find it. It can force us to look at other people with fresh eyes.
My son taught me this on his bar-mitzvah, when he became a man and I, his father, stepped back to make room for him to stand as his own person on the bimah.