Repeating the Past

Hayyei Sarah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Nov 2, 2002 / 27 Marheshvan 5763 | Israel

Ironically death pervades Parashat Hayyei Sarah, the parashah that is literally translated as “the lives of Sarah.” The Torah reading opens with the death of Sarah and closes with the death of Abraham. In between, we are privy to the negotiations between Abraham and Ephron over the Cave of Makhpelah (which would become the burial site for our ancestors) and the search for Isaac’s mate. Life is bracketed by death. Sadly, it is a fitting parashah given the circumstances confronting our brothers and sisters in Israel today. There, the natural deaths like the ones our parashah chronicles are replaced by violent and untimely deaths at the hands of terrorists. Negotiations (as between Abraham and Ephron) between Palestinians and Israelis are notably absent too. Silence and unremitting violence have replaced dialogue and compromise. The silence to which I refer is a profound echo of the silence that we confront in the Genesis narrative and in this week’s parashah.

After the expulsion of Ishmael and his mother Hagar there is no meaningful conversation between the half-siblings Isaac and Ishmael – there is no joint vision of these two brothers and sadly no explicit conversation between the two in the Torah (though the midrash does provide some). The brothers eventually do come together and the circumstances are not surprising. Parashat Hayyei Sarah relates, “And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Makhpelah . . .” (Genesis 25:8-9) The death of their father brings these two brothers together. Still, there is no conversation between Isaac and Ishmael – even at this critical point of mourning. Utter silence settles upon the text as the two engage in this sacred act and then part ways.

Tragically, this narrative is a striking reflection of the way many families live their lives today. Deeply estranged from one another, its members come together solely at funerals. The rabbis of our tradition teach a profound hermeneutical concept – ma’aseh avot siman l’banim – the deeds of the ancestors are a sign unto the children. This notion is often translated into layman’s terminology as “history repeats itself” – a philosophic, albeit fatalistic notion. I want to challenge us to understand this idea in a different way – according to the literal reading of the Hebrew. “The deeds of the ancestors are a sign unto the children.” The Hebrew implies that there is room for growth and choice, room to learn. We can learn from the past. It is merely a sign unto us. We are not condemned to repeat the past.

Let us take this rabbinic teaching to heart. May we see the example of Isaac and Ishmael as a warning, not a script. We, the descendants of Abraham know what it is to cooperate silently in the burial of the dead. Now is the time for us to learn what it is to cooperate in life.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.