Selection and Safekeeping

In Parashat Hayei Sarah, Abraham seeks to mold the events that will befall his people after his death.

From the beginning of the Book of Genesis and at least until the end of chapter 36 (out of 50 chapters ), the narrative develops in one direction only: It concerns a selection process that advances from father to son. Abraham is chosen first, and then the same process continues and Isaac, not Ishmael, is also chosen; thereafter, Jacob, not Esau, undergoes the same process of selection. Only when Jacob has sons does this process become distributed equally among everyone, allowing the narrative to shift from focusing on a series of individuals to the story of a nation. This selection process can be seen as a form of communication between man and God, and one naturally expects that the Almighty will do the choosing.

Prior to last week's Torah reading, Abraham seemed to want an heir, although the patriarch didn't consider what would happen after his own death to any future offspring. Abraham's only wish, which he conveys to God, is "Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!" (Genesis 17:18 ).

But something happens in the wake of the binding of Isaac: The ongoing dialogue between Abraham and God ends, as does the dialogue between Abraham and his son. Abraham's solitude is now intensely realized; he is truly alone in the world. From this point onward, Abraham begins to operate according to a completely different orientation. First, he refuses to accept the proposal of the children of Heth: "in the choice of our sepulchers bury thy dead" (Gen. 23:6 ). Instead, he purchases the land for his wife Sarah's grave, paying the full price in cash. Then he dispatches his servant Eliezer to his native land to bring a wife back for Isaac.

The purchase of the land and the search for Isaac's spouse are two acts that will have an impact on the next generation. Through then, Abraham seeks to mold the events that will befall his people after his death - indeed, that is the main subject of Parashat Hayei Sarah.

However, toward the end of the weekly reading, there is another shift, which occurs just a moment before Avraham dies. After Keturah has given birth to her and Abraham's children, the Torah states: "And Abraham gave all that he had unto Isaac" (Gen. 25:5 ).

At first glance, this move serves to "complete" God's actions: Instead of God choosing Isaac, Abraham seems to be doing the choosing himself.

The following midrash (Genesis Rabbah 61:6 ) offers this interpretation: "Rabbi Judah, quoting Rabbi Simon, and Rabbi Brachiah and Rabbi Levy, who quote Rabbi Hama bar Haninah, argue that Abraham did not bless Isaac but simply gave him presents." Why does Abraham give Isaac presents instead of blessing him? The midrash answers with a parable:

"A king who had an orchard gave it to a tenant farmer. In the orchard, two trees were intertwined. One bore fruit that contained the spice of life and the other bore fruit that contained poison. The tenant farmer said to himself, 'If I water the tree whose fruit contains the spice of life, I will also be watering the tree whose fruit contains poison. But, if I do not water the one, will not the other tree also die?' He then said to himself, 'I will act like a tenant farmer; afterward, the orchard's owner will decide what to do.'

"Similarly, Abraham said to himself, 'If I bless Isaac now, the sons of Ishmael and the sons of Keturah will also be included in the blessing. But, if I do not bless the sons of Ishmael and Keturah, how will I be able to bless Isaac?' Abraham then said to himself, 'I will act like a mortal; afterward God will decide what to do in his world.' That is why it is written in the Torah, 'And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son (Gen. 25:11 ).'"

Isaac and Ishmael are presented as two opposite entities: Isaac is the tree whose fruit contains the spice of life, while Ishmael is the tree with poison fruit. It is impossible to water one without watering the second - or to dry up one tree without drying up the other, too. The farmer's solution is to continue watering until his role ends: When the trees again become the possession of the orchard owner, he will decide what to do.

Abraham acts in a similar fashion: He does not need to decide which of his children will be his heir. His task is to raise them in an egalitarian manner, and only after he parts from this earthly existence, will one of them receive the blessing in accordance with God's wishes.

But the interpretation of the narrative, as per the parable, does not end here; the relationship between Abraham and his sons, Isaac and Ishmael, undergoes an important change: According to the midrash, the sons/trees in fact belong to the orchard owner - that is, God - and are merely lent to the tenant farmer for a limited time. Thus, Abraham's responsibility toward them is also limited. He does not decide which of the two is to be granted the privilege of being his heir; his task is simply to watch over his offspring during his lifetime while they grow up.

There is an allusion here to Abraham's altered perception of his life, as he approaches death. For years he had wanted an heir. He was also prepared to give up his son, whose life was saved only at the very last moment. But now Abraham is old and alone, and he speaks neither with God nor with his sons. Blessed by the Almighty in every possible way, the aging patriarch now looks at life from a distance. He has experienced enough to know that whatever he owns does not really belong to him, that everything has merely been lent to him. He even regards his own sons in this way; they are his words and deeds projected onto them.

Just before he dies, Abraham sees himself as a tenant farmer and perceives his children as God's sons, who have been given to him merely for safekeeping and for a limited period. While blessed in every way, he actually has nothing. And when he reaches this realization, it is truly possible to say of the patriarch: "And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people" (Gen. 25:8 ).