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Isaac Unbound – Parshat Chayei Sarah

This has got to be the most Freudian line in the Torah:

Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rebecca as his wife; he loved her, and thus Isaac found comfort after his mother’s death. (Genesis 24:67)

 וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָקהָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹוַיִּקַּח אֶתרִבְקָה וַתְּהִילוֹ לְאִשָּׁהוַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ  וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָקאַחֲרֵי אִמּוֹ.

Indeed, one of the great modern Torah commentators, Avivah Zornberg, known for bringing a particularly psychoanalytic lens to her interpretation, cites this very scene in her introduction to Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, and remarks that, “one might even describe Rashi’s comment [on the scene] as Freudian, opening his readers’ eyes to the dynamics of intimate family relationships.”

Here is the comment of Rashi’s that she is talking about:

It is the way of the world that as long as a man’s mother is alive, he is attached to her; when she dies, he comforts himself in his wife.

דרך ארץ כל זמן שאמו של אדם קיימת כרוך הוא אצלהומשמתה הוא מתנחם באשתו

Well, well. Talk about “intimate family relationships”!

But before we go all the way down this road with Rashi (or with Freud), let’s take a step back to consider some other details in the story. Because there is a lot more going on here than just an Oedipus complex.

First of all, let’s talk about Sarah’s death. Our parsha, Chayei Sarah – literally, ‘The Life of Sarah’ – begins abruptly with the news that, “Sarah died in Kiryat Arba…”  and then proceeds quickly to tell us how Abraham came to mourn her and bury her.

But how did Sarah die?

The easy answer is ‘old age.’ We are told that she lived to 127. So yes, she was old.

But the midrashic commentaries aren’t satisfied with that kind of straightforward answer. They look instead for clues in the timing of Sarah’s death. For if we turn the page back to last week’s parsha, we find that it concludes with the Akeidah, The Binding of Isaac – Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son. Well, that explains it, decide the rabbis:

The death of Sarah is juxtaposed with The Binding of Isaac, because when Sarah heard the news that her son was being prepared for sacrifice, before she could learn that he was not sacrificed, her soul left her and she died. (Rashi on Gen. 22:2, summarizing various midrashim)

ונסמכה מיתת שרה לעקידת יצחקלפי שעל ידי בשורת העקידה שנזדמן בנה לשחיטה וכמעט שלא נשחטפרחה נשמתה ממנהומתה

It appears that Abraham headed off to perform the terrible deed without telling Sarah what he was going to do. Perhaps he wanted to spare her the panic. Perhaps he was just so zealous in his mission, he forgot about everything else. But eventually, Sarah learned what was happening. And when she heard the news, she died from shock.

Now think about what that must have meant for Isaac, upon his return. He had just had his own father hold a knife over him, ready to slaughter him. Suddenly, he is released from that terror, untied and set free – only to come home to find that his mother had died. And then they tell him that she died because she thought he was dead.

What was Isaac thinking at that moment? Did he hate his father? Was he angry at God? Or perhaps, out of some terrible survivor’s guilt, did he blame himself? Did he return, again and again, to the irrational thought that he had caused Sarah’s death?

However Isaac was processing it, the fact is that he went from his own near-death to the loss of his mother – the mother whose prayers he answered by being born in her old age; the mother who loved him so fiercely she sent away anyone who threatened him; the parent who wasn’t ready and willing to kill him at God’s command.

Unbound from the altar, still shaking from terror, Isaac was released directly into mourning. Trauma piled on top of trauma. How did he cope? Where did Isaac go to deal with the pain?

Some say that Isaac spent the next few years in yeshiva, in the ‘School of Shem and Ever,’ studying Torah. This is a tradition that builds off of the curious wording, at the end of the Binding story, that “Abraham returned to his attendants…” Abraham returned. But where was Isaac?

A more mysterious tradition, cited by the Hizkuni, is that Isaac was taken by God into the Garden of Eden for three years. And there is a certain logic to this narrative. What better for Isaac, post-trauma, than a long retreat in Paradise?

But whatever Isaac did, it didn’t seem to work. At least not according to Rabbi Yossi, who says in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer that, “Isaac mourned his mother for three years.” Just imagine him wandering around the Garden of Eden, catatonic, unable to accept any comfort or healing.

And that is the state we find him in, when he finally returns, in our parsha:

Isaac has just come back from Be’er Lachai Roi, and he settled in the land of the Negev. And Isaac went out to meditate in the fields at dusk… (Gen. 24:62-63)

וְיִצְחָק בָּא מִבּוֹאבְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִיוְהוּא יוֹשֵׁבבְּאֶרֶץ הַנֶּגֶב.  וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶהלִפְנוֹת עָרֶב

This image, of Isaac wandering out into the fields by himself to ruminate, is a haunting one. The word some translate as ‘meditate’ – lasuach (לשוח) – which literally means ‘to converse,’ is  understood by the rabbis as a kind of prayer. Isaac is talking quietly to God, or to himself, trying to work something out. Still trying, after all these years.

There is another clue here in this scene that the rabbis pick up on to suggest what else Isaac might have be up to. The place he has “just come back from,” Be’er Lahai Roi, is a location we haven’t seen since Hagar, the mother of Abraham’s other son, was banished there by Sarah. So Rashi jumps on the connection:

He went to bring Hagar back, so that his father Abraham would marry her.

שהלך להביא הגר לאברהם אביו שישאנה

On the face of it, we might suppose this is a touching story of a son trying to help his widowed father move on in life, to discover new companionship with an old flame. But in the shadow of Isaac’s own mourning, one cannot help but wonder if this is an attempt to fill the void that Sarah left in his life, to drag in a mother figure from the past to make up for the mother he sent to an early grave.

But this sort of scheming will never really work. Still Isaac wanders through the fields. Still he prays for the pain to go away. Nothing works. Not an escape into his studies, not seclusion in a luxurious retreat center. Not a new mother. Not prayer, not meditation. Nothing.

Until one day, wandering around out there, he looks up – and sees Rebecca.

Isaac went out to meditate in the fields at dusk. And, raising his eyes, he saw camels approaching. And raising her eyes, Rebecca saw Isaac… (v. 63-64)

וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶהלִפְנוֹת עָרֶבוַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְאוְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִיםוַתִּשָּׂא רִבְקָה אֶתעֵינֶיהָוַתֵּרֶא אֶתיִצְחָק

They saw each other. And that was it. Something finally shifted. Nachmanides, who has a gift for humanizing the Biblical narrative, describes the moment with particularly powerful language:

This is why it says that “Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort.” To hint to us that he had been in profound suffering over his mother’s death, and ‘comfort was far away from him.’ (Lam. 1:16) Until he was comforted by his wife – by his love for her.

וזה טעם ויאהבה וינחם ירמוז שהיה מצטער מאד על אמו ורחק ממנו מנחם עד שנחם באשתו באהבתו אותה

Isaac needed to love. That was the only way out of his sorrow. His heart, which had been broken in so many ways, needed a new purpose. A new love.

So yes, there are classic family dynamics at play here. There is a basic human grieving process unfolding. Surely the theories of Freud, and Jung, and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross all offer penetrating psychological insights to this universal story of loss. In one sense this is, as Rashi says, just “the way of the world.”

But this is also a unique story. And Isaac’s was a unique trauma. Who else has been bound to the altar by our father, only to indirectly cause the death of our mother? And so it took a unique love to heal that kind of pain. Isaac didn’t just need a wife. He needed Rebecca.

The name ‘Rebecca’ (רבקה), incidentally, comes from a root in Hebrew that means, “to couple, “to join,” or even, “to tie together.”

Isaac, who had once been tied to the altar of death, could only finally be unbound by someone who could tie him tightly to the altar of love.

About Rabbi David Kasher

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