"Burial of Sarah" by Gustave Dore
"Burial of Sarah" by Gustave Dore

What did Isaac see at the ‘Well of Vision’?

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Chayei Sarah

Genesis 23:1-25:19

“Isaac returned from the vicinity of Be’er Lachai Ro’i, for he was settled in the region of the Negev.”
Genesis 24:62.

When we encounter Isaac in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, he is grieving for his mother and estranged from his father. He has been entirely absent from the narrative since The Binding, except to be spoken about while Abraham’s servant left to find him a wife — all without his input or consent.

As the sun sets, Isaac seems rather lost. He is wandering about, or meditating, or maybe he is engaged in conversation, though with whom we do not know. All are possibilities for translating lasuach, the flexible word the Torah chooses to describe Isaac’s actions on that long-ago late afternoon (Gen. 24:63).

Regardless of what Isaac was actually doing, this is a turning point. Abraham’s servant appears just then with Rebecca, Isaac’s intended. They fall in love, and Rebecca comforts her husband’s broken heart after Sarah’s death, and perhaps also after his near-death experience on Mount Moriah.

Isaac’s sunset walkabout also led the Talmudic rabbis to name him the inspiration for the afternoon prayer service (Abraham was paired with the morning service and Jacob with the nighttime prayers, to reflect the times of day they experienced their greatest Divine communications).

But something about Isaac’s whereabouts prior to this scene, as much as his actions or emotions in it, leaps off the page to demand attention. What is “Be’er Lachai Ro’i,” the place Isaac is returning from, and why does it sound so familiar?

For that, we need to look back two weeks to Genesis 16. There, Sarai’s Egyptian slave Hagar, pregnant with Abram’s child, fled to escape Sarai’s harsh treatment. (Sarah and Abraham were still known by their former names at that point). Sarai’s idea, to give her servant to Abram to produce the child she could not, bore a bitter fruit, as Hagar lorded her pregnancy over Sarai, causing painful strife. And yet, in the wilderness, Hagar experienced one of the deepest mystical visits of anyone in the Torah.

An angel came and directed Hagar back to Sarai, to bear the child and name him Ishmael, meaning God has heard. Hagar, overwhelmed by the vision, was clear-eyed enough to be the only person in the Torah to give a name to God – “El Ro’i” or “the God who sees me” (16:13). In the next verse, we learn that the place became known as “Be’er Lachi Ro’i, (16:14), the “Well of the Living God who Sees,” (one of many possible translations).

What was Isaac doing at the very same place where Hagar, his half-brother’s mother, banished for a still-unexplained transgression by Ishmael at Isaac’s weaning ceremony long ago, met a messenger of the Sovereign of Sovereigns? What was Isaac seeking at the site of his mother’s handmaid’s epiphany?

The Torah provides only a few tantalizing clues. Chief among them is the reference to Abraham’s new wife, Keturah (25:1), which follows immediately after the formalizing of Isaac and Rebecca’s marriage. A prevailing interpretation of the Middle Ages by Rashi, Chizkuni and others suggests that Keturah was actually Hagar, restored to Abraham with a new name denoting “beautiful and sweet deeds,” (ketoret meaning “fragrant incense”). Could Isaac have traveled to Be’er Lachai Ro’i to bring Hagar back to his father?

Another hint is in the subsequent verses, as Isaac’s connection to Ishmael and Hagar (in fact or memory) intensifies. Keturah bears several more children for Abraham, and Abraham’s life draws to a close. Upon his death at age 175, “his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Cave of Machpelah” (25:9). The startling reappearance of Ishmael offers a brief vision of reconciliation and hope, of Abraham’s adult sons literally burying the past, and for a moment, silently acknowledging the other’s grief and loss.

But there is one more piece of the puzzle that this portion offers. “After the death of Abraham, the Eternal blessed his son Isaac. And Isaac settled near Be’er Lachai Ro’i,” (25:11). This astonishing detail begs us to wonder again, why does this magical place pull so intently on Isaac’s heart? He returns there, with no additional information from the Torah as to why. Immediately following, we learn of the descendants of Ishmael and his passing at 137 years.

Isaac, who lifted his eyes to behold his bride, and who is inextricably bound to this site of Hagar’s Great Vision, will one day be bereft of sight himself, attributed rabbinically to angels’ tears that fell into his eyes when he lay helpless under Abraham’s knife. But for now, this “Well of the Living God who Sees” compels him to return again and again. The Be’er Lachai Ro’i provides something that he needs — perhaps to be bound to his brother and their shared history, and to the woman who first made Abraham a father, so that he can reunite them once again, even for a little while.

Isaac’s brave journey to the Well of Vision reminds us that to bridge the chasms that threaten to tear us asunder, we must try to see the world through the eyes of others, to confront the truths of our shared and painful histories, to bury the past and always, absolutely, keep the hope of peace alive.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].