Tamar Rabinowitz, Dean of Jewish Studies and Hebrew

Our parsha begins abruptly with the death of Sarah. How does she die? The straightforward answer is simply old age. But the midrashic commentators are not satisfied, and in searching out a meaning, they go back to the previous parsha where we read about the binding of Isaac (Akeidat Yizhak). Our commentators, noting Sarah’s death juxtaposed with the Akeida, claim that when she heard that her beloved son was being prepared to sacrifice, she died from shock before hearing that Avraham had not sacrificed him. Think of what that might have meant for Isaac on his return.  He had just been released from the terror of his father yielding a knife in preparation of his sacrifice, only to come home to find out that his mother had died. Isaac went from his own near death to the loss of his mother. Trauma on top of trauma. 

How did he cope? How did he deal with the pain? Hizkuni (13th Century French biblical commentator), noting that Avraham returned alone from the site of the binding of Isaac,  comments with the following: “…he was kept in the Garden of Eden for the next three years [until he married Rivkah.]”  In other words, Hizkuni places him on a long retreat in paradise after the trauma. But whatever Isaac did during the passage of time from the Akeida until we see him again, did not work. 

For when we see Isaac next, he has gone out into the field, by himself. “And Isaac went out lasuach in the field” (24:62). The word “lasuach” also appears in the book of Job where it says, “I will lasuach with the bitterness of my soul.” It appears that this is a type of speech that relieves a strong internal feeling and is a type of speech which helps the soul. 

This is the picture of Isaac, out in the field, talking to himself, hurting and he was his only resource at that moment. Avraham, a participant in the traumatic incident, couldn’t be of help. Sarah might have been, but is no longer.  In this week’s parsha, we see two characters who break Isaac’s isolation: Rebecca and Ishmael

Rebecca really saw Isaac. She saw that he was off in the field, hurting, by himself. And the sight was overwhelming – Rashi says she was toha – she was dumbfounded. But instead of running away, instead of giving in to the fear that his hurt would become her hurt, she continued to see him, she continued to be present for him, and “thus (Isaac) found comfort after his mother’s death ”And for that, Isaac loved her. Isaac needed to love – that was the only way out of his sorrow. He needed a new purpose. The other character to interact with Isaac is Ishmael. He comes back to bury Avraham. “ His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah” (25:9). Commentators wonder why Isaac is mentioned first since Ishmael is the eldest. Rashi says that this comes to teach us that Ishmael repented from his former ways, and upon his return, he had Isaac walk before him. Literally, this means that he allowed Isaac to play some kind of larger role in the burial of Avraham. In this act, Ishmael perhaps provides some comfort in this extraordinarily complicated moment of burying Avraham. Rebecca and Ishmael both see Isaac and in so doing,  help him break out of isolation. 

We live in a world full of hurting, traumatized people. Bereishit itself is a book full of people who are hurting, and who hurt each other. And for generations, Bereishit has been teaching us how to live better, hurt each other less, and help each other more.