Commentary on Parshat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18)
וַיִּקְבְּר֨וּ אֹת֜וֹ יִצְחָ֤ק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל֙ בָּנָ֔יו אֶל־מְעָרַ֖ת הַמַּכְפֵּלָ֑ה…
And they buried him [Abraham], Isaac and Ishmael his sons, in the Cave of Machpelah … (Genesis 25:9)
Isaac and Ishmael only appear together in one line of the Torah portion Chayei Sarah, when they meet in Hebron to bury their father, Abraham, but it is nonetheless a line that takes my breath away.
When we last saw Isaac and Ishmael with Abraham, he came very close to killing both of them — Ishmael through abandonment, and Isaac through near-sacrifice. It is easy to imagine the two wanting nothing to do with each other, or their father. And maybe that was the case sometimes, but they were still able to come together to perform their last duty as Abraham’s sons. How?
When I look for answers to this question, the most ready supply comes from people around me who are doing brave things in spite of strong opposition, be it internal, or external, or both. Last year, as part of my rabbinic training, I spent the year in Jerusalem. One of the unexpected blessings of the year was meeting many activists doing incredible work in support of democracy and human rights in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Many of them spoke quite eloquently about the despair they’d experienced at one point or another post-Oslo (the peace process that was launched in 1993 and has now been largely abandoned) as they’d watched the ideals they’d worked for become more and more marginalized. It was a despair quite familiar to me, as a citizen of the post-2016 (ie. post-Trump victory) United States. I imagine that if Ishmael and Isaac had been present, they might have said this despair was reminiscent of when their father upended their life-long expectation of his care and imperiled their lives.
I think Isaac and Ishmael might have also agreed with what many of the activists said next. In their despair, they came to understand that there was only one choice: to keep going. Their lives and actions did not need to be defined by their past experiences, present adversity, or their fears. I hold their words close; they are true for our lives and actions too.
This week’s Torah portion is full of rich stories, but for many of our fellow Jews, the most important story is of Abraham buying the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, so that he can bury Sarah. His purchase is detailed in an extended exchange, from which we could take any number of lessons — including that Abraham knew what it was to be a ger toshav, a resident stranger with differing status than that of a citizen, or that Abraham knew that it was important to buy land fairly, in open and honest dealings. (Genesis 23:4; 7-16) But for many readers of this text, including the present-day Jewish settlers of Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, there’s one primary moral: Abraham bought the Cave of Machpelah, and he and Sarah were buried there, and that’s how we know Hebron is ours. (This is also, of course, what makes the city holy for Muslims, who consider Abraham a prophet, and why it has at its heart a tomb divided between Jewish and Muslim prayer spaces, both sites of pilgrimage.)
Last year, on the eve of Chayei Sarah, I traveled to Hebron with a group of rabbinical, cantorial, and Jewish education students, on a trip facilitated by T’ruah and Breaking the Silence, to learn about the injustices in Hebron that are systemic rather than exceptional. We visited roads closed to Palestinian foot traffic and roads closed to Palestinian car traffic. We looked up at windows of homes that had been covered in bars and nets, because the homes were Palestinian but the streets their windows looked down on were meant only for Israelis and internationals. In a city full of soldiers, where one group is subject to civil law, and the other group subject to martial law, the army’s primary strategy for curbing violence is to restrict the movement of the group covered by martial law: the Palestinians. We talked with a Palestinian representative of Youth Against Settlements, but only for a few moments before soldiers separated us on the street.
What surprised me about Hebron, though it probably shouldn’t have, was that in the Jewish areas, the walls were painted and tiled and even graffiti-covered with our ancient texts, a kind of visual polemic in defense of settlement. Here was a quote from Bereishit Rabbah 79:9 (a midrashic text) painted on a bus stop and there was a mosaic of Jacob’s ladder on a wall. Here was a sign for King David Street, complete with bilingual Hebrew/English text delineating King David’s connection to Hebron, and there was a banner hanging from the wall of a Palestinian house seized by settlers: Beit HaMachpelah.
Sometimes one of the most painful things we can encounter is people in our broader Jewish family using our sacred texts in support of actions we know to be wrong. In the days and weeks after our trip, I found myself asking a lot of friends and teachers how they lived with the power of Jewish extremists — not “lived with” like accepted, but “lived with” like kept going. One by one they each said something like: Other people don’t get to define what I stand for, or when I do or don’t show up. Especially if they disagree with me, and my backing away from an interaction will cede them more power still.
The next Friday night, I attended shul at Kehilat Kol HaNeshama, a progressive congregation in Jerusalem, and was moved by the rabbi’s drash (commentary) about Isaac’s life. She posited that building an adult life with Rebecca was part of what allowed Isaac to move beyond the trauma of his childhood — that we become ourselves, and build realities that transcend those we have been exposed to, in relationship with others.
When I think back on our trip to Hebron, what sticks with me most is the stories of the activists in Youth Against Settlements, and of Breaking the Silence members like our tour guide. These activists continue to reach out and build relationships with new potential allies for human rights — and through these relationships, power — in the face of great adversity. We can be like them; as we read Parshat Chayei Sarah and think about our relationships with Jews around the world, and as here at home we approach an American election, we can seek to connect, and work for realities that transcend our past and present moments.
Alexandra Stein is a second-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and an alumna of the T’ruah Israel Fellowship.