RJ Fall 2001

Where Was Isaac?

After his near sacrifice, Isaac is not mentioned again until his father Abraham's funeral.
That silence echoes to this day.

by Jack Riemer

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When Abraham and Isaac set out on their fateful journey to Mount Moriah, where the father plans to sacrifice his son, the Torah says: "the two of them walked together." Then, as they start up the mountain, the Torah repeats: the two of them "walked together, hand in hand." But after the angel intervenes and saves Isaac's life, the text reads: "Abraham went back to his servants."

Where was Isaac?

Didn't he come down the mountain with his father? If he did, why is his name not mentioned?

In the next chapter Sarah dies. The Torah says that Abraham made the arrangements for her burial and he wept for her. Again, there is no mention of Isaac. Sarah had cared for Isaac, doted on him, pampered him, driven Hagar and Ishmael out of the house for his sake.

Where was Isaac?

Is it possible that he didn't attend his mother's funeral? Could it be that he sat shivah in one place, and his father sat shivah in another?

In the next chapter Abraham dies. The Torah says Abraham was buried by his two sons Isaac and Ishmael. For the first time since that fateful journey to Mount Moriah, Isaac reappears.

The Midrash relates all manner of theories, guesses, and explanations for Isaac's absence from the family saga. I am drawn to the interpretation of Rabbi Arnold Turetsky: when Isaac saw that his father came close to killing him, he separated from Abraham both physically and emotionally. Isaac simply could not understand how his father could do such a thing. Isaac stood on his dignity and waited for his father to come to him and apologize.

Abraham, too, stood on his dignity. Hurt and insulted that his son had rejected him, Abraham waited for Isaac to come to him and apologize.

Abraham waited, and Isaac waited. And neither one of them made the first move for the rest of Abraham's life. At Abraham's grave, Isaac and Ishmael made up with each other, but they never made up with their father.

In our day, too, there seems to be an epidemic of parents and children giving each other the silent treatment. The reason for this phenomenon, says radio talk-show host Dennis Praeger, is that the therapeutic mentality has replaced the religious mentality. The therapeutic mentality says: do what feels right to you, and never let your life be dominated by "shoulds." In contrast, the religious mentality says that you are required to honor your parents, not because they are always good or right, but because we are commanded by our tradition to do so.

Praeger tells the following story. His father had a widowed mother who was cantankerous, judgmental, demanding, and insulting. Nevertheless, every night after dinner, his father would call her, only to be yelled at. He found these telephone conversations so disconcerting that sometimes he would put the phone down on the kitchen table. "I could hear the yelling," Praeger recalls, "and I would watch my father pick up the phone every so often, and say, 'yeah, Ma,' and then put it down again." Yet, despite her verbal abuse, Praeger recalls that his father phoned his mother every night and visited her once a week.

It would never have occurred to Praeger's father not to speak to his mother, even if at times he wished he could have done otherwise. For the religious mentality says: do what you are required to do; it is a mitzvah. If you take the Ten Commandments seriously, that includes the one that says: honor your father and your mother.

Do all parents deserve honor from their children? No. Some parents make it impossible for a child to observe the Fifth Commandment. Parents who have criminally abused their children physically or mentally deserve no honor, no respect, no love. But still, even when a parent does not deserve respect, parenthood does. In the same vein, not all reporters admire the current or the previous U.S. president. And yet, when the president enters the room for a press conference, all the reporters rise. Why? Out of respect for the presidency.

I know of children who stopped speaking to their parents because their therapist encouraged them to do so. One woman said to me: "I had a loving and a happy childhood, but I have not spoken to my mother for twelve years because she's a controlling person. If I let her back into my life, she would try to run it again, as she did when I was a child." Is that grounds for breaking off relations with a mother? Is that grounds for the pain that this woman is inflicting on her parent? I don't think so.

If you are a child who is not talking to a parent, do not wait for your father or mother to come and apologize to you. Make the first move, and, if necessary, the second move, and do so before it is too late. Do so because it is a mitzvah. Do so because it is the only way you can teach your children how to treat you. Do so because you should, no matter how difficult it might be. If you don't, you will be left with a legacy of guilt to carry inside you long after your mother and father are gone.

And if you are a parent who is not talking to your son or daughter, consider the life of Abraham. Was he a success or a failure? He was wealthy; respected by the people among whom he lived, who called him nasi Elohim, a prince of God; and he founded a new faith which would transform Western civilization. So a case could easily be made that Abraham was a success. But how did Abraham judge his own life?

Rabbi Turetsky points out that the Torah says Abraham died zaken visavea, old and fed up with life. Abraham had two children; one he pushed out and the other pushed him out. Abraham had health and wealth, but in the end it didn't matter. If you amputate your children from your life, you die fed up with life. That is why we dare not, must not, do what Abraham did--cut off communication with our children.

When you fight with your kids, do not ask "who's right?" That question takes you nowhere. Sure, Daddy shouldn't have remarried so quickly, but he did. Sure, David shouldn't have intermarried, but he did. Sure, Ellen shouldn't have moved to California, but she did. Sure, Dad shouldn't have tried to run my life, but he did. Sure, Junior shouldn't have invested in that fly-by-night scheme that I warned him about, but he did. So what?

The only question to ask is: how can I keep my family together? The only thing that counts is preventing distance from settling in, because recrimination begets recrimination, distance begets distance, silence begets silence, separation begets separation. So don't count phone calls, don't keep score, and don't engage in a contest of wills with no winners. In the end, you will lose--and look back at your life with despair.

It is a new year. Let us begin it by making up with those who ought to be closest to us. In the words of the Prophet Malachi: "May the hearts of the parents be turned towards their children, and may the hearts of the children be turned towards their parents." And when we are connected again, how good, how sweet, how blessed, how rich our lives will be.

Jack Riemer is rabbi of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Boca Raton, FL; co-editor with Nathaniel Stampfer of So That Your Values Live On, published by Jewish Lights; and chair of the National Rabbinic Network. The author thanks Rabbi Arnold Turetsky for his many insights, without which this article would not have been possible.


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