Chayei Sarah: Letting go

Then Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife. (Bereishit 25: 8-10)

And now they come together,
two sons of this dead father
who doted on them both,
yet banished one and
almost killed the other.

The older son, thickset and dark,
eyes aglitter, stares broodingly
at this younger one, the scion
who usurped him. In his mind
he sees his childhood self,
ready to inherit – then
his buoyant laughter filled the air.
The agony etched on his father’s face
as he cast his son to the desert wastes,
could not extirpate his anguish.

The younger son, reserved and pale,
eyes half-shut, peers, wondering,
at this older brother
who left his world so long before.
Memories of joyous play
arrested by perplexing absence
are cloaked by a much sharper grief.
The agony etched on his father’s face
as he raised the knife to kill his son,
could not extirpate his anguish.

They rest their silenced father
in the dark and yielding earth,
and bury both their pain and loss.
Then turning round in synchrony
they step towards the light.


In a commentary on Parashat Chayei Sarah, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=9654, Rabbi Adam Greenwald recalls having taken a group of high school students to New Orleans to do relief work, painting and rebuilding homes devastated from Hurricane Katrina. When the group wandered through the French Quarter, he recounts, they repeatedly found money scattered on the sidewalk or in dark stairwells, which by the end of the night amounted to nearly $140 in misplaced cash!
He says, “This, of course, led to a lively debate among the students about what to do with this windfall. Some suggested that we bring it to the police. Others thought we should donate it to the rebuilding organization we were serving.” Rabbi Greenwald happily reports that none of the students suggested spending it on themselves. He was particularly delighted, he adds, because this experience gave him the opportunity to teach one of his favorite sections from the Talmud, a discussion referred to as “Elu Metziot,” which details the laws of lost and found property.

He says, “The central concept that emerges from this ancient discussion is the idea of “Ye’ush“. Ye’ush literally means “to give up on.” A lost object that has been found must be returned to its owner, so long as the owner has not yet done Ye’ush – given up on ever recovering the object. Once the owner has resolved that the lost object is irretrievably gone, it ceases to be that person’s property. It becomes free.”

Rabbi Greenwald continues, “In its original context, Ye’ush referred only to lost physical property, but its spiritual power extends far beyond that definition. There can be a letting go of disappointments, of hopes, of grudges, and of desires. In some ways, this Ye’ush is sad, because it means letting go of the possibility that what was lost might someday be restored, that what is broken might ever be repaired. But Ye’ush can also be a source of liberation. It is a rest from the constant what-ifs and if-onlys that accompany so many of us for so much of our lives. It is an invitation to honor loss, and to then get on with the rest of life.”

He then notes that last week’s parasha, Vayeira, is “among the most traumatic of the Torah”. We read first about Ishmael who was exiled from his home, where he had been a cherished older son and at one point the apparent heir, and cast out to the barren desert. And later we read about Isaac, also dearly loved by both his parents, taken by his father to the top of the mountain, bound to an altar, and saved at the last minute from his father’s knife! As Rabbi Greenwald observes, “While both sons survive their close encounters with death, their family is shattered. No one ever speaks again – neither Abraham and Sarah, nor Abraham and either of his children.”
He then considers this week’s Parasha, Chayei Sarah, which he says “has its own share of heartache, but it ends with a profoundly redemptive moment. At the close of this week’s reading, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father. Two brothers, torn apart by trauma, meet again to quite literally bury the past. This is an extraordinary moment of Ye’ush. What has been lost to them – love, innocence, a sense of security – will never fully be restored. Yet, in this moment, we bear witness to their placing the past in the ground. We can imagine them walking away from the gravesite, perhaps with tears in their eyes, but also perhaps with a great sense of liberation.”
He concludes, “Ye’ush is potentially among the most redemptive forces in our lives. It is not about forgetting our losses; it is about releasing them. It is about recognizing what can be mended and what cannot, and being prepared to let go. Every one of us has things that we have schlepped around for too long – a relationship that will not be fixed, a dream that will not come to pass, a wish for things to have turned out differently. Ultimately, and in our own time, there must come to each of us a moment of Ye’ush – of letting go so that new possibility has the space to enter.”

The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS observes that the Talmud (BT BB 16b) interprets the fact that Ishmael and Isaac united to bury their father as a sign that Ishmael changed his ways as he matured, “Although he could not have forgotten how his father treated him and how his brother supplanted him, he seems to have forgiven Abraham for having been a less-than-perfect father. Isaac too seems to have come to terms with his father nearly killing him on Mount Moriah.”
The commentary cites Bereishit Rabbah (38:12) which suggests that these reconciliations might have occurred in Abraham’s lifetime which would perhaps explain the Torah’s description of him as “contented” in his old age. The Etz Hayim ponders whether this could be a model for family reconciliations, forgiving old hurts, and whether it could even be a model for the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac to find a way back…

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