Silence and Seeing: Parashat Chayei Sarah

After the climactic events of the akeida, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac at the end of Parashat Vayera, what speaks loudest now is the silence.

Our parasha opens with the death of Sarah:

“Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” (Genesis 23:1-2)

It is the first thing the Torah tells us after the akeida takes place. Noticing this juxtaposition, the midrash fills in what might have happened, the holes that are left in the story. Sarah is visited by Satan, who tells her that Abraham is going to kill their son and in her shock and grief, she dies.

Isaac never speaks to his mother again. He may not have even had the chance to say goodbye when he and Abraham leave early in the morning.

God never speaks directly to Avraham again. Avraham and Yitzhak never speak to one another again. And Yitzhak, in particular, goes quiet. 

We can imagine what might be going on for him. The Jewish tradition offers a multiplicity of interpretations of Yitzhak’s participation in the akeida. Was he fully aware of what was happening? Was he a willing and knowing participant, or did Avraham withhold the truth of what he was planning to do? 

In any case, Yitzhak is quiet throughout this week’s parasha. Avraham sends his servant to choose a wife for Yitzhak. We never hear Yitzhak’s voice in the exchange. Rivka, in fact, is a much more active and assertive character in the story we read today, and will continue to be throughout her partnership with Yitzhak. 

Where is Yitzhak? 

In the first encounter between Rivka and Yitzhak, the Torah tells us that he had just come back from Beer-lachai-roi (24:62)

Why was Yitzhak in Beer-lachai- roi? According to midrashic interpretations, Yitzhak went to see Hagar and Yishmael.

Beer-Lachai-roi is a place of great significance. It is the place that Hagar names, in her time of greatest fear and need, the place where God hears and sees her and saves her.  The name means “the well of the living one who sees.” It is a place of divine encounter, and it is associated with Yitzhak’s estranged half-brother Yishmael and his mother, Hagar. 

What did Yitzhak hope to find there?

Even if you accept the Talmud’s interpretation that Yitzhak was a willing participant in the akeida, that might not make the event any less traumatic. 

I imagine Yitzhak, in the desert, shellshocked, trying to make sense of what happened, and to mourn his mother, to try to redefine his faith. 

Perhaps Yitzhak went to Be’er-lehai-roi to seek repair: To repair his relationships with Yishmael and Hagar, who were part of his family in the early part of his life.

After his mother’s death, and having been nearly sacrificed by his father, Yitzhak is bereft. He may be seeking comfort, or to reconnect with the family that he has left.  He may be reeling with a sense of profound estrangement from his father, Avraham.

Perhaps he has more empathy with Hagar and Yishmael now, the ones who are strangers, who were cast out, but who have built a new life and formed their own relationship with God.  Maybe it is this new way of living that Yitzhak seeks to connect with as well. Yitzhak goes searching for a way to forming a different connection with God – his own, not his father’s. He needs to be seen – by God, and by other people, as more than just as the means by which Avraham’s faith is tested. 

We find hints in the Torah and the midrashim that Yitzhak does in fact reconnect with this part of his family. 

In Genesis 25, we are told that Avraham marries Keturah. According to the midrash this was actually Hagar, and that Yitzhak was the one who brought her and encouraged his father to marry her in a formal way. Yitzhak is the one who brings people together, who wants to heal relationships, and set things right. 

The Torah also tells us that when Avraham dies, Yitzhak and Yishmael bury him together in ma’arat hamachpelah (25:9). After Avraham’s death, God blessed Yitzhak and Yitzhak settled near Beer-lachai-roi, in the Negev. This place, Be’er-lachai-roi – once a place of exile, a place of seeing – is now where Yitzhak makes his home. 

Yitzhak’s story speaks powerfully to us today.

We are initially struck by Yitzhak’s silence or his absence from the story, that leads us to speculate about the changed nature of his relationship with his father, Avraham, after he is nearly sacrificed. 

Not speaking is an understandable response. In a world riven by disagreement, many of us make the choice to avoid speaking about certain topics, to preserve our relationships with family and friends with whom we disagree. The conversations can get so tense, that we might decide that we are better off not engaging. In many cases, that is probably a healthy response.

But Yitzhak also tries to manage the discord in a different way. He goes to the place where his estranged family is and tries to bridge the gap, to repair his relationship with Hagar and Yishmael, and to pick up the broken pieces. The conflict and hurt are real. The past cannot be changed. But Yitzhak is willing to join with his one-time opponents in a conflict that started before he was even born in building a new future together. 

That, I think, is a message that speaks very well to us today as we look ahead to the future of our community, our country, and the world. We have been deeply divided, and disagreement about the direction we are headed continues. But finding solutions to the challenges we face will depend on our willingness to heal old wounds and come together with common purpose, our abilities to allow ourselves to see one another and to be seen in turn.


This is based on a d’var Torah that originally gave for this Torah portion in 2020, and some of the ideas later inspired one of my sermons for Rosh Hashanah in 2021.