Shayna Abramson

A parent’s worst nightmare

The families of the hostages are reliving the trials of our ancestors. These stories remind us we’re not alone
Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza and supporters hold up their photographs, at "Hostage Square,” outside the Art Museum of Tel Aviv, October 26, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza and supporters hold up their photographs, at "Hostage Square,” outside the Art Museum of Tel Aviv, October 26, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

This week’s parshah is Chayei Sarah, the weekly Torah reading that records Sarah’s death, followed by Avraham’s purchase of a burial plot for her in Hevron, followed by the story of Yitzhak marrying Rivkah.

The text tells us that when he married Rivkah, Yitzhak found comfort after the death of his mother.

The midrash tells us that Sarah died before Avraham and Yitzhak made it back from their joint journey to Akeidat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, where, at God’s command, Avraham offered Yitzhak as a sacrifice before an angel stopped him and Yitzhak was let go. It turns out that the point was to test Avraham, but not to actually sacrifice Yitzhak. After all, the Torah makes it quite clear that it finds human sacrifice, especially child sacrifice, abhorrent, so it makes sense that God would not actually allow Avraham to go through with it and would send an angel to stop him.

But according to the midrash, Satan, the evil angel, appeared to Sarah to tell her that her long-awaited only child, her miracle child, was bound as a sacrifice on an altar on Mount Moriah. When Sarah heard this, she died; her soul flew out of her body, a reaction to the shock and grief and fear that flooded her at the same time.

Technically, Satan was not lying. Yitzhak was bound as a sacrifice. He just left out part of the story in which Yitzhak was saved.

But it is precisely this lack of full and accurate information, having some sense of her child bound up somewhere, without being able to get a complete picture of the situation, without being able to do anything to save him, that causes Sarah’s soul to depart. She cannot deal with the trauma.

I’ve been thinking about this midrash recently in relation to the Israeli children held captive by Hamas. Their parents have some information – they know Hamas took them as hostages – but they lack the complete picture. This murky situation, of having enough knowledge to be worried, to feel your child is on the altar and the knife could drop at any moment, but not enough information to understand what is truly happening or to be able to take concrete actions to help them, is described by our Sages as an experience so traumatic it can induce death. It is a parent’s worst nightmare.

I have also been thinking about things from Yitzhak’s perspective: He leaves a home that is whole, undergoes a traumatic near-death experience, and comes back to a home that is shattered, his mother gone.

This is the experience of many Israelis in the south, who experienced a traumatic near-death experience of seeing terrorists infiltrate their homes and having to hide or run away, left their homes in exile, and in many cases, know that the homes they come back to will be missing a close family member a parent/sibling/spouse child who is confirmed killed or kidnapped, or still missing with their fate unknown, as Israel works to identify bodies.

Our nation right now is reliving the lives of its spiritual ancestors, and not in a good way. But that’s also part of why these stories are there – to remind us in moments of crisis that we are not alone, that we have been here before and come out of it, that God will save us.

In the Torah, Yitzhak finds comfort after tragedy. He marries Rivkah. They have children, and their son Yaakov, also known as Yisrael, goes on to become the father of the Jewish nation aka Bnei Yisrael.

But I imagine this does not erase the tragedy. Yitzhak finds comfort. But comfort does not mean that one becomes whole again. It means that one finds the resilience to go on living, from a place of un-wholeness.

I don’t know if any of us will ever feel whole again. But we can go on living. There will be comfort; there will be the creation of new life after this tragedy; maybe there will even be a rebirth of our nation. When he married Rivkah, Yitzhak did not realize he was setting up a chain in history, leading us all the way to today, this present moment, when we as the people of Israel lived in the land of Israel where he too, once walked, building wells in Beersheva, where Qassam rockets fall.

We are in the middle of the story and sometimes that makes it harder to see the points of hope along the way, the good things that lie in the next chapter.

These days, I take inspiration from the parents of the kidnapped children. Unlike Sarah whose soul flew from her body, they have not allowed themselves to become overcome by this tragedy. They fight every day, sharing their stories with the press and with local and international governments and NGOs, doing all they can to apply pressure to get Hamas to return their children.

But they need our help. It is incumbent on us to use the means at our disposal – prayer, Torah study, social media or regular media, writing letters to our local politicians and making our voice known to international NGOs like the Red Cross, contributing to Jewish community organizations that are working on the return of the captives – to help bring these children home.

May God send these children home speedily and safely to their families.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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