This week’s parsha is Chayei Sara - the life of Sarah - which begins, somewhat incongruously, with the death of Sarah. Abraham acquires a burial ground for her, ensuring the transaction is witnessed by the community. We then hear of Abraham’s instructions to his chief servant to find a wife for Isaac among Abraham’s kinsfolk. Rebecca shows her generosity in drawing water for not only the servant but also all of his camels. A marriage is arranged, and Rebecca agrees to depart.
Something that always manages to surprise me when I come across it is that Abraham is then said to marry again and has more children. Some commentators say that this wife, Keturah, is none other than Hagar, renamed. Among the children they have is Midian, a tribe we hear about multiple times throughout the following books (Moses’ father-in-law Jethro was a priest of Midian, for instance!) These children receive gifts from Abraham during his life, while Isaac remains the sole heir.
We then come to the second death in the parsha, that of Abraham. Here is a part of the story I plan to consider further.
וַיִּקְבְּר֨וּ אֹת֜וֹ יִצְחָ֤ק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל֙ בָּנָ֔יו אֶל־מְעָרַ֖ת הַמַּכְפֵּלָ֑ה
His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah (Gen 25:9)
This is the first we see of Ishmael since he and his mother Hagar were sent away by Abraham, and the parting at the time was certainly a difficult one for Ishmael.
The closing of the parsha recounts the descendents of Ishmael, and his death, the third and final one in the reading.
So to sum up, within a reading called “the Life of Sarah”, we retell the deaths of three major actors in the story of our ancestors. This, as well as the presence of both Isaac and Ishmael together at Abraham’s burial, struck me this year, particularly given the war in Israel and Gaza.
Point one - the inclusion of all three deaths in the same parsha ties Sarah, Abraham, and Ishmael together once again. Their stories are entangled, as messy and difficult as they may be, and none can be fully told without including the others. The inclusion of all three of their deaths in this time can tell us just that – one story cannot be truly concluded without the conclusion of the other two as well.
That brings me to the other point – Ishmael is present for the burial of his father, Abraham, alongside Isaac. Surely there could have been animosity, jealousy, even hatred between the two. Ishmael and his mother had been cast aside, while Isaac could see his older half-brother as rival or threat. But that is not how they appear to react in the moment of Abraham’s passing.
The burial of a loved one is difficult. We are instructed to comfort the mourners in our midst. Were Isaac and Ishmael, perhaps, comforting each other? Did they acknowledge the sadness and distress they felt together, setting aside differences to support each other in a difficult time?
Maybe so, and, if that’s the case, here’s the lesson I wish to take from this.
In this time, we are all stunned by atrocities, the deaths of many and physical and emotional harm done to so many more. But perhaps, in this moment, those whose stories are intertwined, notably those of good intent - those who truly see the humanity in others different from themselves - may be able to seek one another out. Perhaps we can disavow hatred, revenge, tactics of terror and destruction, and begin to find ways to shelter one another, to dry each other’s tears and take the time to mourn together.
I wish to be clear about this. Those responsible for atrocities must be held to account. Hostages must be freed. Civilians, regardless of what soil they call home, must not be intentionally targeted or recklessly placed in harm’s way.
And yet, even in the heat of conflict, I hope we can see a possible future where the children of Isaac and Ishmael stand side by side as our ancestors did, comforting each other as we mourn for our dead. I pray that we may see that peace in our time.