December 12, 2018

Kindness connection: Parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)

Did Avraham attend Yitzchak’s wedding? Well, in the closest thing we have to a wedding description — right at the end of this parasha — Avraham is nowhere to be found. The servant who made the match is there, and the spirit of Sarah is there as she looms large in her son’s memory, but there’s no mention of Avraham. 

And when you consider the parasha more broadly, this absence emerges as but one data point among several. For example, when Avraham buries Sarah at the beginning of the parasha, this time it is Yitzchak who is nowhere to be seen. Yitzchak is similarly absent from the discussion between Avraham and the servant concerning finding Yitzchak a wife. The text makes it abundantly clear that Yitzchak had absolutely nothing to do with it and seems to still know nothing about it until Rivka arrives and the servant explains the whole story. In fact, aside from the one brief and breathtaking exchange that Avraham and Yitzchak have as they climb Mount Moriah, there is not a single line of recorded dialogue between them. And most surprising of all, while we have vivid descriptions of Yitzchak (in his old age) blessing his sons, and of Yakov (at the end of his life) blessing Menashe and Ephraim and all of his sons, there is no scene in which Avraham blesses Yitzchak. He does leave all his possessions to Yitzchak, but there is no deathbed scene, there is no blessing, there are no words whatsoever. It’s too many points to not constitute a pattern. It’s too much of a story to imagine that the Torah isn’t deliberately telling it.

There are surely many possible explanations for this curious — and sad — state of affairs and what the Torah wants us to make of it, and I will attempt only one here. Perhaps what we’re being told is that Avraham experienced the birth and life of Yitzchak as if he were an actor, playing a role in a script that he hadn’t written, and as a result always felt a little bit detached from Yitzchak’s life and story. Yitzchak’s birth was more driven by God’s narrative than Avraham’s. Yitzchak was the direct result of God’s miraculous intervention — an intervention that Avraham deemed unnecessary when God first told it would be happening (“May Yishmael live before You!”). To be sure, Avraham does faithfully carry out all of God’s instructions concerning this miracle child, circumcising him, marrying him off within the family, ensuring that he is the primary heir, and even bringing him up to be bound on the mountain when God asks that he do that, but nowhere do we find him emotionally engaged with Yitzchak. This in contrast, by the way, with the deep feelings that Avraham expresses when Yishmael is banished from the house (Genesis 21:11).

We simply do not find Avraham emotionally engaged with Yitzchak, which is probably why we never find Yitzchak emotionally engaged with his father either.

None of this is intended as a criticism of Avraham. It is obvious that Avraham cared for Yitzchak, and always ensured that he had all his needs attended to. Nor is it my intention, even remotely, to suggest that father and son never spoke. Rather, I’m suggesting that the Torah is subtly but unmistakably painting a story of a father, a great man, who could not get past the feeling that he had been thrust into a script that wasn’t of his own design, resulting in a relationship that lacked the magic of true and spontaneous love. 

The story, looked at this way, is about your life and mine in numerous ways. It’s about the conscious, and sometimes almost superhuman effort it takes to be emotionally present for people, be they family members or acquaintances, when we don’t feel an innate emotional connection to their story. We of course only add more pain to painful situations when we appear to be (and actually are) emotionally detached. And although our difficulty in engaging may be understandable in objective terms, it is often a terrible blow to the one who seeks our caring and empathy.

The story of Avraham and Yitzchak is also about those occasions when we find ourselves, completely unexpectedly, in the middle of situations that call for our response, but about which our first thought may be, “This has nothing to do with me.” The Torah often demands our engagement in situations such as these, such as when we stumble across a stranger’s lost ox or garment, or when we encounter somebody’s donkey that has fallen under its load. The mitzvah “to not stand idly by” presumes a situation that arises “off-script.” Comforting mourners, visiting the sick, tending to the needs of the poor all have a way of presenting themselves unplanned and outside of the narrative that we had written for ourselves. And we are asked to somehow arouse the emotional resources we will need to rise to the moment.  

None of us is a bottomless reservoir of emotional energy, and we have to know how to best utilize our resources. But we can all strive higher and learn a lesson from the life of the father of our people.

Rav Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox congregation.