Death and Reconciliation

"Avraham died . . . and Yitzchak and Yishmael his sons buried him." "Isaac and Ishmael his sons"? This is the only time in the great saga of our founding families that the Torah speaks of them together, calling them both Abraham's sons (Gen. 25: 9). Until this moment the Torah has never allowed us to see them together, in a direct relationship. Always before they have been described separately:

Yishmael, whose name means "God will listen," is Avraham's son with Hagar ("the stranger"). God has promised to listen to his outcry, and did, after his father has exiled him and he lies stranded, dying in the desert.

Yitzchak, whose name means "laughing boy," is Avraham's son with Sarah ("princess"). His parents have laughed in disbelief when they were promised him, and laughed again in joy when he was born. But he himself, the one whose father bound him as an offering and raised the knife above him, never laughs.

There is a moment when we almost see them in relationship, but only through Sarah's eyes. Just after Isaac's weaning feast, "Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Avraham, making laughter." The verb here, miTzaCheK, mirrors the word and meaning of Yitzchak's name. Yishmael has somehow tuned in to Yitzchak's very essence, and is turning his hidden laughter into public mimicry. Or so says Sarah, and she demands the banishment of the boy and his mother.

What is so grievous about this mitzachek? Perhaps to Sarah's eyes it seems that the two boys are far more alike than different, and for that very reason they must not grow up together, for in each other they will see a clouded mirror, almost but not quite an image of their selves.

And so the two sons have been sent to live in parallel, not in convergence.

Such a parallel! By the time their father Avraham has died, each has lived for many years with the knowledge that he, their father! Sent them to the brink of death.

And now they reconnect, at long last "his sons." Have they come together only in a formal public way, just to bury the Old Man and get back to their separate lives? It seems not: the story continues, "Now it was after Avraham's death, that God blessed Yitzchak his son. And Yitzchak settled by Be'er Lachai Ro'i, the Well of the Living -One Who-sees-me."

What is this well? It is Yishmael's well, the well that God gave Hagar and Yishmael not once but twice when they were suffering in exile.

For Yitzchak to be blessed with a peaceful life at Yishmael's well, something must have happened at Avraham's graveside. Let us listen:

"All these years, I've missed you. I only came to the Old Man's funeral because I knew you would be here. As for the Old Man, I've feared and hated him. He would have let me die. And the way he treated my mother! The Egyptian stranger, he called her. For that contempt, God tells me, his offspring, your offspring, brother! Must serve as strangers in the land of Egypt. May it be that from that service you will learn to know the heart of the stranger, as the Old Man never knew my mother's heart!"

"And I've missed you. I could never understand why you were ripped out of my life. I too, feared the Old Man, he would have literally killed me. I missed you, and I blamed you. I always thought he took me to that mountain because he was filled with guilt over exiling you. He thought he had to treat us equally."

"You blamed me! How amazing! For to tell the truth, I blamed you too. For your sake, your mother said, she had us exiled. All these years, we've turned our fear of the Old Man into distrust of each other. But now, thank God, we've reconnected! I would be honored if you would come to live with me a while."

"That would be a blessing in my life."

And so at last there was fulfilled the last stage of the prophecy that Hagar had heard (Gen. 16: 12) when she was pregnant with the child she named "God listens":

He will be a wild man;His hand in all and the hand of all in him; And facing all his brothers he shall dwell.

For the story of Yishmael ends (Gen. 25: 18): "Facing all his brothers did he live."


For millennia, on Rosh Hashanah the Jewish people has read the twin stories of how Avraham brought each of his sons to the brink of death. Perhaps we need to read on Yom Kippur the story of their reunion and reconciliation, elevate that story in our consciousness, see the death of their dangerous father as the opportunity to reconceive our lives.

Perhaps on Yom Kippur we can invite the children of Yishmael to visit in our tents, to tell their version of that ancient story and of their suffering so that we listen, really listen, as God listened to their outcry long ago. And to name for us a time when they will listen to our story, to our suffering.

Perhaps together we can bring forth Be'er Lachai Ro'i, the Well of the Living -One Who-sees-me. At that wellspring we might not only hear but see each other' not in a cloudy mirror but with clarity, how much we have in common and where we differ. And laugh out loud at the harsh joke that God has played upon us: blessing each of us with a sense of covenant-connection with this troubled land so filled with promises.

Or perhaps even the Torah's prophecy itself did not see fully clearly: perhaps it is not brothers but the almost-sisters, Sarah and Hagar, who today will have to see and drink from the hidden well-springs of compassion, if our children are ever to laugh with one another.


* Rabbi Waskow is the author of Godwrestling, Round 2 (Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock VT) and many other works of Jewish renewal. He is a Pathfinder of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, an international network with headquarters in Philadelphia. Copyright (c) 1999 by Arthur Waskow.

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