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18.11.2019 17:25    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  chayei sarah  

“Isaac found comfort after his mother’s death”

This week’s reading begins with the death of Sarah, and immediately goes on to describe Abraham’s reaction to it: “Abraham proceeded to mourn for (or eulogize) Sarah and to bewail her” (Gen. 23:2).  The Hebrew phrase, lispod le-Sarah ve-livkotah (= to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her) seems to indicate that Abraham fulfilled his duty towards his departed wife, observing the accepted customs of mourning, which surely included other practices as well (such as rending one’s garments), beyond eulogizing and bewailing.  Immediately afterwards, Abraham saw to her burial.

In many cultures, the first and foremost obligation of the living to the dead is to see to their proper burial.  There is a notion that negligence with regard to burying the corpse condemns the soul of the dead to an inferior and miserable existence in the netherworld.  This notion is expressed explicitly in the Mesopotamian myth, The Gilgamesh Epic, in the response given by Enkidu to the question posed by Gilgamesh about the fate of a person whose body was cast into a field:  “His spirit does not find rest in Hades” (Gilgamesh Epic, tablet 12).[1] The inferiority of those disadvantaged persons not accorded a proper burial, as opposed to those properly interred, is seen in Scripture in the mocking words of Isaiah to the king of Babylon:  “All the kings of nations were laid, every one, in honor, each in his tomb; while you were left lying unburied, like loathsome carrion…You shall not have a burial like them” (Isa. 14:18-20).

In contrast to Abraham, whom we are told observed proper mourning for his wife and also saw to fitting burial, Scripture passes over Isaac’s response to his mother’s death in silence.  We are not told that he took part in her burial or in the mourning practices observed by his father.  Actually, he is not even mentioned in all of Genesis 23, even though being bereaved of one’s mother is considered particularly hard, as follows from the words of the psalmist:  “I was bowed with gloom, like one mourning for his mother” (Ps. 35:14).

Nevertheless we can learn about Isaac’s emotional response to his mother’s death indirectly, precisely from the account of the event that put an end to his mourning—his marriage to Rebekah (Genesis 24).  The narrative concludes with a verse that affords us a fascinating insight into Isaac’s emotions:  “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife.  Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death” (Gen. 24:67).  From this we conclude that Isaac grieved over his mother’s death a long time and went through a complex emotional process in which Rebekah took the place that had been occupied by Sarah, both physically and emotionally, in Sarah’s tent and in Isaac’s heart, and filled the void that the death of his mother had opened in Isaac.[2] Only with his marriage to Rebekah, which according to biblical chronology took place three years after his mother’s passing,[3] did Isaac find consolation.

This is consonant with the notion that one of the important ways of overcoming the loss of a dear one is to form new ties of affection that are a positive affirmation of life.[4] Interestingly, the mechanism of overcoming the loss of a mother by means of a spouse also finds expression in popular culture.  Thus it is in John Lennon’s song, Julia, written about his mother Julia, who was killed in a car accident when he was eighteen years old.  One line of the song, “ocean child calls me, so I sing a song of love” relates to Yoko Ono, since Yoko in Japanese means “ocean child.”  A less well-known but more explicit case is that of the musician Johnny Shuali.  In a newspaper interview he talked about how he had been affected by his mother’s death from cancer when he was twenty three.  In the wake of her death he decided to get married.  In explaining this move, he mentioned the case of Isaac, who found comfort in Rebekah after his mother’s passing.[5]

Scripture provides numerous examples of overcoming bereavement by forming a new, life-affirming emotional tie, especially when it is a matter of mourning a child.  Thus it was with the primordial couple, who were also the first mother and father to lose a child.  The apocryphal Life of Adam and Eve recounts that Eve mourned Abel,[6] but the bible does not describe this response of bereavement on the part of Adam and Eve, who lost their son in especially horrifying circumstances, having been murdered by their eldest son, the only one to remain alive.  Nevertheless, as with the story of Isaac, one senses how broken-hearted and pained they must have been precisely because of the way Scripture informs us of events that may have been somewhat of a comfort to them:  “Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, ‘G‑d has provided me with another offspring in place of Able,’ for Cain had killed him” (Gen. 4:25).  Eve formulated the general principle of the mechanism of renewal of life in the shadow of death:  Seth took the place of Abel, and thus she found comfort.

Another instance where comfort for the loss of a son is found by bringing another son into the world is that of David and Bathsheba.  After the death of their baby, the fruit of forbidden relations between David and Bathsheba, we are told how David comforted Bathsheba:  “David consoled his wife Bathsheba; he went to her and lay with her.  She bore a son and she named him Solomon.  The Lord favored him…” (II Sam. 12:24).

An interesting instance of getting over the death of one’s offspring by finding an emotional substitute, but not by way of a biological son, is described in the book of Ruth.  The book begins with an account of Naomi’s sorry state, a widow who subsequently also lost her two sons and was left with neither kith nor kin (Ruth 1:3-5).  This is how she bitterly described her condition to the women of Bethlehem, upon returning to the city:  “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:21).

By the end of the book, however, the situation turns around; that which had been empty becomes full, and Naomi is described as hugging a child.  True, it was not her biological son, but rather that of her loving daughter-in-law and Boaz, a family relation on the side of her late husband, Elimelech.  Nevertheless, one has the impression that Naomi acted as another mother to the newborn child.  The two women who had been childless at the beginning of the book—Naomi and Ruth—share motherhood at the end:  Ruth is the biological mother of Obed, but Naomi is the one who takes the baby, hugs it to her bosom and serves as its foster mother (Ruth 4:16).[7] The women of Bethlehem even proclaim, “A son is born to Naomi!” (Ruth 4:17), and see him as Naomi’s “redeemer,” who will support her in her old age (Ruth 4:14-15), as is the duty of a son to his parents, who brought him into the world.  Here we have an exceptional case of socio-psychological (as opposed to biological) parenting by Naomi, who found consolation and overcame the difficult losses she had suffered, by virtue of the son born by her loving daughter-in-law, the son who for Naomi substituted for a son of her own.  Bereavement and suffering were overcome by new life, grace, and love.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

 
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