As with so many of the parshiot in Bereshit, Chayei Sarah is jam-packed with the real life activities of our ancestors. Named after the first few words of the parasha, Chayei Sarah — literally the life of Sarah — is about anything but her life. In fact, the story opens with her death. One midrash suggests that she actually followed Abraham and Isaac up the mountain during the Akedah – the binding of Isaac – which we read about in last week’s portion. The shock of seeing her son, the son of her old age, the son that she waited for for so long, almost being killed, by his father no less, is more than Sarah’s old age can handle.
So Abraham buys a burial place for her, the cave of Machpelah in what we now know as Hebron. He will later be buried there as will Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah.
Abraham then sends his servant Eliezer off to find a wife for Isaac while Abraham himself remarries to Keturah who is noteworthy if for nothing else than the fact that she is a woman mentioned in the Torah, and together, they have a bunch of children. Rashi suggests that Keturah is really Hagar, Sarah’s former maid who had a child with Abraham. I’m not sure the timing works.
Meanwhile, Eliezer stalks, uhmmm…watches Rebecca and is drawn to her. Isaac is too, and he brings her to his mother’s tent where Rebecca helps him grieve. I’ll let you use your imagination about how that healing process goes.
Sounds like something out of an soap opera maybe? Or maybe this is just a portrait of a normal family, flawed, just like the rest of us.
In the final scene of the portion, Ishmael and Isaac come together to bury their father Abraham. There is no fear and drama like we will hear in a few weeks when Isaac’s twins will come together to bury him. But there is also no mention of Ishmael, since he was sent away with his mother as a child. Has he been around the family at all? Does he have a relationship with his brother? I cannot imagine what they must have felt. Seemingly, Isaac and Ishmael are strangers, one having been sent away by his father and the other nearly being sacrificed by his father. Yet they recognize that they are brothers. And what of the other siblings from Abraham’s marriage to Keturah? We do not know.
As Dr. Burt Visotzky says in the Genesis of Ethics: “By dying, Abraham grants Isaac a certain immediate freedom, even if he leaves Isaac with a wife he engineered and ghosts to battle. Ironically, Abraham also leaves Isaac with a brother who shares those ghosts.The clues the stories provides …[with] the brothers’ joint presence at the burial, offer up the possibility that one avenue to resolution of parental-child conflict is through sibling cooperation.”
Does this sound like your family? I hope not! But we all have our mishegas. As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, perhaps our most Jewish of American holidays, are we saying “Modeem anachu Lach” “we are thankful to You,” or are we worried about family dynamics? Are there family members that will only see each other at funerals? Are there siblings who are separated without really knowing why, because the fight that pulled them apart was so long ago? Do we cringe at the idea of having to spend the afternoon with our own parents, while hoping that our children never feel that way?
One of my favorite movies of the American Jewish experience is Avalon. Part of Barry Levinson’s Baltimore series, it tells the story of the Krichinsky family and their story of becoming Americans. There are two brothers who have an appliance store together. Later their children take over — the cousins are so American that they change their names, one changing it to Kirk and the other to Kaye. They don’t even change it to the same name! But the pivotal scene takes place on Thanksgiving. One brother, Sam, has moved to the suburbs and the other brother, Gabriel, arrives late to find that everyone has begun to eat. Gabriel, powerfully played by Lou Jacobi, rants about how far away from the city Sam’s family has moved, and points his finger saying, “You cut the turkey,” as if the cut was they fatal blow to the brother’s relationship. This blow separates the brothers so much that when Sam’s wife dies, Gabriel doesn’t show up at the funeral.
So what can we learn from these families? From Abraham and his clan. From Sam and Gabriel. Perhaps they’re are not perfect. Yes, is it possible that our ancestors are not perfect? Perhaps we are not perfect. Maybe it’s ok. We all make choices we might regret. The key is, what do we do after the choices have been made, after the action has been taken. Because you never know what may happen, and, if at all possible, it’s also better not to cut the turkey until everyone arrives.