Burying Isaac: Vaylishlakh 2015

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Leadoff Questions: What are the best ways to cope with unfinished business? Must we make an effort to create a sense of closure? When closure is impossible, is it possible to find positive outlets to prevent such unfinished business from haunting us?

Two Torah portions ago, Isaac attempts to create closure by doling out blessings to his sons. When that plan goes awry, the implications can be felt for a generation – and perhaps longer.

Text: “And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, at Kiriath-arba – now Hebron – where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. Isaac was a hundred and eighty years old when he breathed his last and died. He was gathered to his kin in ripe old age; and he was buried by his sons Esau and Jacob.” (Genesis 35:27-29)

Commentary #1: “Next we read of the death of Isaac, who had, apparently, lingered on his deathbed for 20 years, blind, feeble, and immobile – a graphic image of the decline of the patriarchate. After their father’s death, Esau and Jacob parted company. The narrator tries to give the impression that it was an amicable separation, explaining that the twins were too rich to share the same territory. But Esau’s departure to Seir, the mountainous region to the southeast of Canaan, shows that the emotional reconciliation of the brothers had come to nothing. Jacob could neither live with his brother nor with his own shadow self. He did not achieve the psychic healing of blessing. – Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis

Commentary #2: “Isaac’s death is narrated as following on Jacob’s return to Padan Aram. His ‘deathbed’ blessing to Jacob, masquerading as Esau, occurred 22 years earlier. … Consciousness of mortality is a feature of Isaac’s ‘inscape,’ but his time of real death arrives without rehearsal and without declaration of will or blessing. – Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis

Commentary #3: “Jacob and Esau continued at peace for the next 18 years – their father Isaac died and was buried in the Cave of Machpelah. Only then, some say, did Esau tell his sons of the bartered birthright and the stolen blessing; yet still restrained their jealous rage, saying: ‘Our father Isaac made us swear to live in peace with one another.’ They answered, ‘While he lived, that was well enough. But now let us gather allies from Aram, Philistia, Moab and Ammon, to root Jacob out of the land that is rightfully ours!’ Eliphaz, being an upright man, dissented. Esau, however, keenly remembered the injuries Jacob had done him, and felt ashamed to be thought a weakling. He therefore led a huge army against Jacob at Hebron, but found the entire household in sackcloth and ashes, mourning Leah’s death. When Jacob took offense at this unseemly breach of their covenant, Esau said: ‘You have always hated and deceived me! There can be no true brotherhood between us until lion and ox are yoked together before the plough; until the raven turns white as the stork; until the boar sheds its bristles and grows a fleece.’” – Jubilees 37-38

Follow-Up Questions: Who bears responsibility for the unfinished business in Isaac’s family? To Armstrong, it seems to be Jacob who has not healed from his brother’s anger. Zornberg places responsibility on Isaac, who tries to create closure long before his death. The excerpt from the book of Jubilees blames Esau, claiming that he wishes to take revenge on his brother even after the two of them buried their father together.

What steps could Isaac, Esau, and Jacob have taken to avoid the unfinished business between them? Should Esau receive credit for reuniting with Jacob 20 years after their separation and suggesting that the two live together? Can we really blame Isaac for wanting to bless his sons long before his death, given that no one truly knows when death we will die? Is it fair to blame Jacob, given that Esau had declared his desire to kill his twin brother? To what extent is our reluctance to solve unfinished business relatable to the experiences of our ancestors from the book of Genesis?

Emanu-El Happenings: Now that Thanksgiving is complete, we can look forward to the beginning of Hanukkah. I hope you’ll join Emanu-El for services and celebrations surrounding this fun holiday. I also want to remind you that, for the second year in a row, we will be gathering at three Publix locations on Sunday, December 13th, at 5:30PM, to light candles for the final night of Hanukkah and to then buy food and other supplies to be donated to the Kosher Food Pantry. Look for more information in coming days; it’s a great way to conclude the holiday with a spirit of generosity for those who need to celebrate the most.

The Big Inning at the End: On a weekend in which we give thanks, it’s worthwhile to recount the story of the first day Yogi Berra was honored at a baseball stadium. Allegedly, when it was Berra’s turn to speak, he began, “I’d like to thank all those who made this day necessary.”

Shabbat Shalom!