The imperfect ideal

The imperfect ideal

Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1-25:18

There is a certain wisdom to the way Torah presents our people’s heroes. Rather than the idealized figures found in many other religious traditions, the characters in the Hebrew Bible are all so human.

For all of Moses’ great and inspired leadership, he was impatient and prone to anger. King David, the exquisite psalmist who was honored as the ancestor of the future messiah, was selfish and manipulative. Noah is described as “righteous in his generation,” not the best person absolutely, but the best at that time.

The same is true of Sarah, whose death begins this week’s parshah. Although revered as the founding matriarch of our tradition, and one of the ideal figures our daughters should aspire to emulate, Sarah also cruelly exiled Hagar and Ishmael. While Sarah is rightly revered for the good qualities she possessed, we must not lose sight of her flaws as well. Doing so provides the rich insights for which we study our sacred texts.

Following the death of Sarah, Abraham acquires a burial place and buries her. Although Isaac is not mentioned with regard to his mother’s funeral, we know he mourned her loss (as we would expect), because we read that Rebecca consoled Isaac after his mother’s death. Interestingly, when Abraham dies at the end of the parshah, both Isaac and Ishmael bury him, and they are both referred to equally as his sons.

Although in the biblical narrative Isaac is the heir of Abraham’s legacy, we can infer two things from Abraham’s burial. The first is that despite his exile by Sarah, Ishmael continued to love and respect his father. The second is that, as pointed out by Rabbi Gunther Plaut in his Torah commentary, the brothers re-established a harmonious relationship following Sarah’s death. Despite the tensions that undoubtedly arose because of the rivalry between their mothers, Isaac and Ishmael are united by their shared affection for their father.

This lesson is an important one for us to consider today. In the land of Israel and elsewhere, there is much conflict between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael. All too often, we concentrate on what divides us rather than on what unites us. Whether it is our shared ancestry or our mutual desire to be able to take care of our families in peace, there is indeed much that we have in common.

Isaac and Ishmael put aside their differences in the spirit of their father’s memory. So too must we continue to seek ways to address our differences in the spirit of our shared aspirations. We owe our children nothing less.

Shabbat shalom.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)