Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Father Yitzchak - Stories within Stories

I have always wondered about Yitzchak. His story seems so pale in contrast to the colorful sagas of his father Avraham and his son Yaakov... Yes, of course there is the Akeida - but that is told more in terms of what was done to him than in terms of a story of his own authorship. In the story of his mating and marriage, and even in the story of the blessings to his son(s), he is hardly the lead character. And so much of what happens - happens to and for him, and not by him.

And yet my sense is that if we scratch the surface a bit deeper we may find some compelling personal stories here, especially if we understand Yitzchak in the context of his humanity as a person with profound feelings.

Lets explore a passage that struck me as I read the Parsha of Chayai Sarah. When Eliezer is bringing Rivka back with him from Haran to be the bride of Yitzchak, the Torah tells us something that we seemingly have no need to know. The verse reads “and Yitzchak was coming from Beer L’chai Ro’eey and he dwelt in the land of the Negev.” Now the next verse tells us that Yitzchak was out in the field, which our sages interpret to mean he was involved in afternoon prayer, when Rivka encounters him. But why do we need the previous verse about where he lived and where he was coming from.

Well, let’s remember. Where do we find mention of Beer L’chai Ro’eey, and what was Yitzchak doing there? You may recall that Beer L’chai Ro’eey was the place where Haggar saw the angel when she fled, pregnant, from Sarah. In fact, she named the place Beer L’chai Ro’ee. Yitzchak had some business there. What might it have been?

We need to think back to the story of Yitzchak and his early life. It’s clear that he had a brother, Yishmael, who at one time was an important player in his life - so much so that Sarah demands that he and his mother be expelled from the home. What must it have been like for Yitzchak to lose his only sibling and, as the text appears to us, he likely was given no explanation and no chance to say goodbye.

I once knew a man in his late sixties who came to the United States from India.
He was a schoolboy when India and Pakistan were made into two countries, separating the Muslims from the Hindus. He told me that one day a great siren went off and many of his Muslim friends were pulled out of school in the middle of the day (as the families had to cross the new borders) and he never got to say goodbye. They just disappeared, vanished, gone from his life, never to return.
He told me that ever since then, and that was some fifty years earlier, whenever he saw a group of Sikhs talking, no matter where he was, he would walk over to them and say “Maybe you know my friend so and so who I have not seen in so long. Can you tell me about him” - all the while knowing that there are a billion Muslims in the world and the real chance of these people knowing his friends was non-existent.

When we do not get a chance to say goodbye to important people in our lives who are taken away from us, we often, one way or another, spend our whole lives looking for them. Yitzchak was looking for Yishmael at the site his mother named and in the Negev where he lived. He needed to make closure on that relationship as an adult even if he could not as a child.

Have you ever wondered why Yitzchak had such an affinity for Esav the son who was more the outdoorsman and the one who was the hunter? Could it be that Esav reminded Yitzchak of his brother Yishmael, the one he lost contact with and missed growing up, the one he may likely never got to say goodbye to?

It is amazing how, when people don’t get to say goodbye and make closure on a relationship, it remains unfinished and can affect the rest of their lives. Sometimes we like to protect ourselves from the pain of goodbye. And sometimes we think we do our children a favor by protecting them from the goodbyes to dying grandparents or even parents when, tragically, they die young. But closure is important, even when it hurts.

And saying goodbye is a precious gift. Yitzchak taught me that. He taught me to face the ends when they come and to help my children do similarly. In saying goodbye I become free to move on. In avoiding it, the price I may pay is to remain stuck and searching.


  1. This really adds another level of dimension to my understanding of Yitzchak and what was going on for him, an understanding of his psyche. Thanks! I'm looking forward to your next post!

  2. Thanks for the post...I am glad you found my understanding of Yitzchak interesting ..what I am more curious about is whether it was an interpretation that felt relevant to you and your life with those you love and care about? have you ever felt the need to say goodbye or wished for an opportunity that for whatever reason was denied you?