Parashah Ponderings

Love Once Restored in Hebron

Parashat Chayei Sara / פרשת חיי שרה
Torah Portion: Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

Seven years ago, Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, one of the great Jewish thinkers of our day, wrote an article entitled “On Judaism and Islam” on this week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah. The article, which was later published in his book Genesis: The Book of Beginnings (Covenant and Conversation) is as relevant today as ever.

One of the flashpoints for violence between religious Israelis and Palestinians is the city of Hebron. Hebron is holy to both Islam and Judaism because it there that our common ancestors are buried in the Cave of Machpelah. This week, in fact, we read about Abraham’s purchase of the cave in perpetuity so that he may give Sarah a proper burial upon her death. Eventually Abraham himself was buried there as were Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. (Rachel has her own burial-place, to which Jews make pilgrimage to this day.) Thus, the Cave of Machpelah and Hebrew are important, holy sites to all three Abrahamic faiths, but especially to Jews and Muslims. There is even a mosque at the site of the cave.

It saddens me greatly that a spot which should be a place of reconciliation is, instead, a place of ongoing conflict between the son of Sarah and the son of Hagar. It is as if Isaac and Ishmael never made peace with one another after their very rocky start as young boys. Recall, for example, that Abraham reluctantly did Sarah’s bidding and sent Hagar and Ishmael away because Sarah couldn’t bear the sight of Ishmael making sport with Isaac.

But Isaac and Ishmael did make peace. The Torah hints at this when it places both brothers at the side of Abraham’s grave (Gen. 25:9). The reconciliation of Isaac and Ishmael is painted even more vividly in two midrashim that Rabbi Sacks cites in his article. One midrash (Genesis Rabah 60:14) has Isaac fetching a wife for his father after Sarah died. The wife’s name in the Torah is Ketura, but the midrash says the wife’s original name was Hagar! Isaac longed for his father to be reunited with Ishmael’s mother, Sarah’s handmaiden whom she gave to Abraham when she believed it would only be through Hagar that Abraham could produce an heir.

The other midrash (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, 30) has Abraham visiting Ishmael twice. On the first visit, Ishmael’s wife sends Abraham away; she thought he was a beggar. After Ishmael divorces that wife, he marries a woman named Fatimah, which also happens to be the name of the prophet Mohammed’s daughter. Abraham returns to Ishmael’s house to be greeted by Fatimah, who offers him food and drink. Though Ishmael was not home at the time, Fatimah told him about the incident and Ishmael knew that Abraham still loved him.

Thus, writes Rabbi Sacks, “Yes, there was conflict and separation; but that was the beginning, not the end. Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both his sons, and was laid to rest by both. There is hope for the future in this story of the past.”

Let us pray that the love restored between Isaac and Ishmael in Hebron be rekindled soon and in our day.

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