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Chayee Sarah: the Path to Reconciliation

11/12/2020 12:50:37 PM


Two weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of maintaining connections under strain. Once a relationship has broken, how is it mended? This week’s portion, Chayee Sarah, is the first of three examples in Genesis of reconciliation of estranged brothers. In some cases, the animosity has a clear backstory in which both sides have agency. In the case of Jacob and Esau, it is the negotiation over a traded birthright and a stolen blessing. Joseph brags about his dreams, and his brothers sell him to slavery.

In the case of Isaac and Ishmael, the disconnect is less explicit. Ishmael is sent away as a teenager, perhaps no more than 16, because he is a threat to Isaac. Isaac may be the focus of the resentment, but he is a arguably guiltless. He is the object of the dispute, not a participant in it. Though some rabbinic sources assert that Ishmael attempted to harm Isaac, or that he was one of the servants who guided Abraham and Isaac to mount Moriah, the Torah does not explicitly convey any direct conflict or interaction between them. At the end of this weeks’ portion, we actually see the brothers interact for the first time as they come together to bury their father.

Our Jewish tradition teaches that reconciliation after conflict is an incredibly important value, something to be pursued actively, but the reason it must be pursued is that it cannot be expected to be automatic. Sometimes, as in the case of Isaac and Ishmael, a more pressing need causes both sides to set aside their differences. In the case of Joseph’s brothers, an admission of wrongdoing and a commitment to change redirects the relationship. In the case of Jacob and Esau, I believe that Esau simply reached a point of security and comfort his own life that seeking redress for old longs no longer mattered.

Our country is at a time of conflict, and there are many hard feelings that are not resolved. Their resolution is incredibly important, but not automatic. Life-and-death crisis is not always enough, nor is it enough for one side to offer reconciliation or the other to demand it. Isaac and Ishmael were half-brothers who were separated for decades, and it took over 20 years for Jacob and Esau to heal their break. I hope it does not take us as long.

Each of us faces our own personal challenges of disconnection, of broken relationships with friends, work associates, even families. In fact, there are many in our congregation who bear the weight of long-running estrangements from loved ones. Sometimes we can mend them, and sometimes we must live with conflict beyond our control. As part of our new, grant-funded partnership with JF&CS, we are offering a free support group for these individuals and families called “Our Common Experience” on Mondays from 4:00-5:00 PM starting this coming week. To sign up, please send an email to

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784