David Walk

Yitzchak and Yishmael

When I’ve thought about this week’s Torah reading in the past, usually I start focusing on death. You know the parsha contains the deaths of Sarah, Avraham and Yishmael. But there are life affirming issues as well. Yitzchak falls in love and marries Rivka, and Avraham remarries and has six more sons. There is also a mystery. The mystery is: What is Yitzchak’s connection to the peculiar place called Be’er L’Chai Ro’i? 

Before we investigate that conundrum, allow me a word about the location of this famous well. There are many theories, most totally uninteresting. However, I love the theory that it’s Ein Avdat, just south of Kibbutz S’deh Boker. This is a truly beautiful and enchanting oasis in the midst of the awesome Negev desert. Its appeal is both aesthetic and spiritual, attested to by the presence of many caves formerly inhabited by hermits of all stripes who meditated there over the millennia. 

This location is mentioned three times in Sefer Breishit. The first time is when Sarah demands that the pregnant Hagar be sent away: Then Hagar called the name of God who spoke to her, ‘You are God Who Sees’; for she said, ‘Have I not even here remained alive after seeing Him?’ Therefore, the well was called Be’er L’Chai Ro’i (Breishist 16:14-15). Then we have it again twice in this week’s parsha, both times in connection to Yitzchak. 

The first time is when Yitzchak is coming back from there just in time to meet Rivka. Why had he gone there? The most famous speculation is found in Rashi: For he had gone there to bring Hagar back to Abraham that he might take her again as his wife (24:62).  

The second time is after the death of Avraham Avinu. The verse (25:11) says that he went there to live, apparently on a constant basis, rather than in Be’er Sheva. Why? The Malbim suggests that he wanted to live in a holy place where God tends to answer prayers. It’s good to have special places for prayer. 

So, that’s our first answer to our central question: What is Yitzchaks’ attraction to Be’er L’Chai Roi? This mystery is compounded by the fact that our normal approach to Yitzchak is that he is not an innovator. We usually think of Yitzchak as trying to be as like his father as possible. Many of his stories (famine, Avimelech, well digging) seem like replays of his father’s life. So, again, why does he decide to live in Be’er L’Chai Ro’i, instead of Be’er Sheva, like Avraham? 

Rav Ari Kah suggests: 

Perhaps Yitzchak’s forays to Be’er L’Chai Ro’i have paid dividends and now we have healing in the family. A family once divided has now achieved a semblance of unity. Perhaps as long as Sarah was alive, Yitzchak could not make this move, for it was his mother who had demanded the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael. After Sarah’s death Yitzchak is free to try and bring people together. With Avraham’s death, Yitzchak goes one step further and chooses to live with Yishmael in Be’er L’Chai Ro’i. 

Perhaps, this whole gambit is to fulfill his perception of his father’s will. Avraham always wanted to reconcile with Hagar and Yishmael. It was Sarah who saw them as threats to Avraham and his divine mission. I believe that he saw this rapprochement as a stepping stone to further emulation of Avraham. 

Rav Kahn also believes that this episode may help us to understand Yitzchak’s relation with his ne’er do well son, Esav. Perhaps, as a favored son, who felt guilt about what happened to his brother, and, therefore, he felt sympathy Esav and his presumed fate. Just goes to show that there are people in troubling situations who deserve our sympathy and help, and there are those who don’t. 

Rav Sacks OB”M carries this idea even further. He observes: 

Beneath the surface of the narrative in Chayei Sarah, the Sages read the clues and pieced together a moving story of reconciliation between Abraham and Hagar on the one hand, Isaac and Ishmael on the other. Yes, there was conflict and separation; but that was the beginning, not the end. Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both his sons, and was laid to rest by both. There is hope for the future in this story of the past. 

First of all, I’m not sure that this approach is that of the Sages, at least not all of them. However, this observation is very moving and, I strongly believe, instructive for our world. Here in our proto-redeemed State, we know that peace with our nearby neighbors, viewed as descendants of Yishmael, is still very far away. As a group, they don’t see a way forward in peace with us. All attempts at reconciliation have failed for over a century and a half, but not because we haven’t tried. 

On the other hand, recent events have shown tremendous progress in our efforts to live in peace with the greater Arab and Moslem world. The Abraham Accords are the single greatest example, but there are many other signs of cooperation with the Moslem world. One can reasonably be cynical and say that the cooperation is merely practical and, perhaps, superficial, but I believe that some of the connections are becoming systemic and will not easily be reversed. 

We often view Yitzchak as the least innovative and successful Patriarch, but his efforts at reconciliation with Hagar and Yishmael may just be the single greatest message the Jewish people need today. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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