Isaac was meditating in the field towards evening.
Maybe he was remembering his beloved mother,
Or maybe he was thinking of his unknown brother.
He probably missed him, now that he was mourning.
Now that Sarah was not alive anymore, Isaac was left alone. After the trauma of being bound on an altar by the father he once loved and trusted, he may not have seen him anymore. Nor did he know his family in Haran. Indeed, when Eliezer came to Haran to find a spouse for Isaac, the way he speaks of Abraham to his family shows that Abraham did not have any kind of relationship with them after his departure.
Abraham had gone and did not look behind him – he was walking before God, towards his destiny, and left his family behind. Maybe, when arrived at an old age, Abraham missed his family and wished to reconnect with them in some way. Maybe he did become conscious that he was responsible for Isaac’s loneliness. Abraham had made the choice to leave his family; but this choice had repercussions on Isaac, who found himself uprooted. Maybe one of the reasons why Abraham wanted for his son a wife from his family, was to help his child find a connexion with his roots.
Isaac may not have been aware of his father’s plans, maybe he was not even aware of having a family in Haran. However, he must have heard about his brother Ishmael and probably wished he knew him. Maybe was it the reason why he came to the well of the Living-One-who-sees-me, where an angel had spoken to Hagar when she was pregnant.
We learn a few verses later that Isaac brought Rebecca to Sarah’s tent. Could it mean that Sarah’s tent was near the well of the Living-One-who-sees-me? If this was the case, did it mean that Sarah repented, in her last years or days, for the tough way she had treated Hagar?
Isaac may have wondered where was his brother now, what had happened to him. Ishmael had been exiled with his mother because he was metzaheq with Isaac, who was still a baby. Many commentators explained that the Hebrew verb metzaheq means that Ishmael was mocking Isaac; or even worse, that he was abusing him. Others says that he wanted to “become Isaac”, to take his place and his heritage. All these explanations seem to try to justify why Sarah exiled him and his mother. If she had acted in such a harsh way, it could only mean that Ishmael had done a really bad thing.
Maybe this was not the case. Maybe, as Ibn Ezra says, Ishmael was merely “playing [with his young brother] because such is the habit of every young boy, and Sarah became jealous because he was older than her own son.”
Sarah may have found inappropriate to see the son of a servant play with Isaac. If the two boys played together, it could mean that they had the same status in the family. Then, Sarah may have feared for her son’s heritage – was not Ishmael the first born of Abraham, would he not inherit more than Isaac?
But if Sarah, by exiling Ishmael, had ensured the status and possessions of her son, she had not thought that Isaac might need a brother who could support him, and with whom he could share experiences.
Thus the interpretations of the verb metzaheq which says that Ishmael harmed his brother seem to nourish divisions, fears, feeling of enmity. Ishmael had to be sent away because he was dangerous. In the same way, we may feel defiance towards people from a different background; we may feel that we are in competition with them, instead of considering them as people who could support us and that we could support. Thus, instead of establishing with them enriching relationships, we harm them or fight against them because we see them as a threat – or because we are not ready to share our resources with them.
Having said that, we may ask ourselves: if Ishmael did not do anything wrong, why did the Eternal say to Abraham: to listen to Sarah’s voice and exile him?
Maybe it was simply because the Eternal planned to make Ishmael the ancestor of a great people on his own land, and Isaac the ancestor of another great people on another land. But that did not necessarily mean that Isaac and Ishmael would be opposing each other. On the contrary, they could keep on visiting each other, and nurture a peaceful and enriching relationship.
While he was meditating in the field towards evening,
Isaac suddenly saw camels coming in the wilderness.
He peered, and saw – his brother Ishmael was not coming,
Instead, a young lady appeared to him, full of goodness.
Isaac had lost his mother and met his wife Rebecca.
When his father died, he reunited with Ishmael at Makhpelah.
A generation had passed – new relatives were found.
A knot is untied; it is replaced by a new bond.
Like Isaac, we lose relatives and friends, but we also make new relationships. Like him, we are sometimes alone, facing our distress and fears – and then we suddenly meet a person who help us overcoming our hardships.
We need each other, and are longing for each other. But sometimes, fear and prejudices keep us far from one another. Sometimes we try to come together – but often, the people that are brought to the group are those who share similar values, beliefs or culture, and not the stranger. Maybe we should go further and reach out to the other, the one who is different from us, the one who will challenge us and that we will challenge – the one that we might fear at first sight but who will ultimately reveal himself or herself as a true friend.
LBC rabbinic student Iris Ferreira
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.