As a child I used to see my Israeli grandparents twice a year; during the winter we would visit Israel and in the summer they would visit us. During the intermediate months, as a result of high international calling costs, we would speak very occasionally on the phone, but we would write letters to each other (with Skype, Facebook and email it is almost hard to remember such a time). I always found it hard to comprehend the fact that while we were apart time continued to move for them; as a child it was hard to understand the fact that their lives continued when I couldn’t see them. It was not so much a case of out of sight out of mind; it was more a situation of out of sight out of context.
Isaac is the man who is initially out of sight in this week’s Torah portion, a fact made all the more striking because he was last mentioned when Abraham attempted to sacrifice him. After sacrificing the ram in place of Isaac, we read that ‘Abraham returned to his young men, and they rose up and went together to Be’ersheba; and Abraham lived at Be’ersheba’ (Bereishit 22:19). Isaac is conspicuous by his absence. Perhaps he refused to return with his father, maybe he remained on the mountain scarred by the experience, or perhaps he simply decided to go his own way, separate from the man who was prepared to kill him for God.
And this week, with the death of Sarah, we read that ‘Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her’ (Bereishit 23:2); but her son is absent. Are we to understand that Isaac refused to return home to mourn for his mother? The sense of absence intensifies as Abraham instructs his trusted servant to journey back to his homeland to find a wife for his son. Isaac is not consulted, Isaac is not present for the conversation; he remains a part of the story, but he is missing.
Rebecca is the one who rediscovers Isaac. It is only once she has begun her journey to meet her future husband that we read: ‘And Isaac came from the way of Be’er Lechai Roi; for he lived in the Negev’ (Bereishit 24:62). In some ways it is as though Rebecca resurrects Isaac in our story. It is in connection to her that he reappears, and it is through her that he appears able to mourn for his mother and continue with his life: ‘And Isaac brought her to his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebecca, and she became his wife; and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death (Bereishit 24:67).
This still leaves the question of where Isaac was, while he was out of sight.
Be’er Lecha Roi is no ordinary well. Instead, it was the place that was named for Hagar’s encounter with the angels after she fled from the home of Abraham and Sarah. Although she does not directly give the well its name, it was named for her experiences there. ‘And she called the name of Adonai who spoke to her, “You, God see me;” for she said, “Have I not gone on seeing after God saw me” Therefore the well was called Be’er Lechai Roi’ (Bereishit 16:13-14).
When Hagar and Ishmael were sent out of the home again, it seems likely that she would have sought refuge in a place with which she was familiar, and a place where she encountered God. The fact that Isaac came from this place suggests that after the experience of the Akedah, feeling that he could not return home, he fled to the other family he knew, his half-brother and his father’s second wife.
While in Bereishit 21 the relationship between Isaac and Ishmael is often portrayed as one of enmity; Isaac’s reappearance from Be’er Lechai Roi suggests that the two maintained their relationship. This is further demonstrated at the end of this week’s Torah portion when together they bury their father.
While Isaac may be out of sight in terms of the Torah, he is together with his extended family. And in a place which God sees – Be’er Lechai Roi. During Isaac’s absence from the Torah he is together with Ishmael, and quietly, while out of sight, the two brothers provide an example for all of their descendants about the possibilities for peace and reconciliation.
And if you want to listen to this Two Minutes of Torah: