Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Separation and Return / Chayei Sarah

Heidi and Rick Solomon’s son, Daniel, spent his first 7-1/2 years of life warehoused in a Romanian orphanage. It was a horror. Daniel spent his days in a crib, except when he ate or used the bathroom. He didn’t know any of the caregivers well enough to learn their names. Six months after bringing Daniel home, Daniel became a horror: throwing hurricane tantrums for hours, punching holes in the walls, physically attacking his mother. Heidi and Rick called the police frequently. Their marriage was at risk. Daniel was homicidal. Two psychiatrists told them the situation was hopeless: Daniel had severe attachment disorder.

Psychologists tell us that attachment and separation are hugely important issues in the life of every child, with ramifications well into adulthood. Social and emotional attachment to a parent or primary caregiver from the earliest age is critically necessary to healthy development. Being separated from the caregiver is a trauma and can be terribly damaging, adversely affecting the social, emotional and cognitive development of a child.

The experts further tell us that when families experience trauma, and separation ensues, they must grieve. Studies abound on children who have experienced violence (either at home, or as refugees), children who were adopted when they were old enough to feel the separation, and children who have lost their parents or were taken from their homes. But it is not only children who suffer from separation when trauma strikes; adult do, as well.

This week’s parashah describes such a family: Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.

In the opening two verses, Torah recounts Sarah’s death:
Sarah’s lifetime -- the span of Sarah’s life -- came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiryat Arba -- now Hebron -- in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (Genesis 23:1-2)
Since these verses (Genesis 23:1-2) follow directly on the tail of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac), our Sages reasoned that Sarah died of grief when she learned what had happened at Mount Moriah (Tanhuma, Vayera #23 and Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:7 #1). Imagine her shock and horror; imagine the trauma.

Abraham approaches the Hittites and after a protracted negotiation, purchases Ma’arat ha-Machpelah (the Cave of Machpelah) near Mamre.
And then Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre -- how Hebron -- in the land of Canaan. (Genesis 23:19)
(The structure over the Cave of Machpelah today)
Between the mourning, the negotiation, and the burial, some time must have elapsed. Where was Isaac all this time? Didn’t he mourn his mother? Didn’t he attend the burial? No mention is made of him.

And here’s another question: Where was Abraham when Sarah died? She was in Kiryat Arba, but he was in Beer Sheba, where he had gone upon return from Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:19). Commentators attempt to explain their separation in various ways. Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (58:5) concocts this explanation:
And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah (Genesis 23:2). Whence did he come? R. Levi said: He came from the funeral of Terah [his father] to that of Sarah. R. Yose said to him: But Terah’s funeral preceded Sarah’s by two years. In fact, he came from Mount Moriah [implying that Sarah died of grief when she heard what had transpired there].
Still on the subject of Abraham’s mysterious whereabouts at the time of Sarah’s death, Rashi tells us that his stay in Beersheba was only temporary; but Genesis 22:19 is clear: Abraham settled in Beersheba. Rabbi Judah haChassid (1150-1217, author of Sefer haChasidim, the Book of the Pious) tells us that Abraham did not return to Kiryat Arba because he thought Sarah would consider him insane for what he had done, and not believe that God could possibly have commanded it. Other commentaries tell us that Abraham did live in Kiryat Arba, and yet others that Sarah came to Beersheba.

Everyone is dancing around what the text makes clear: After the Akedah, Abraham and Sarah live apart. The trauma of the Akedah -- for all three -- leads them to separate, and they suffer for it, because the separation adds trauma to the trauma. Abraham no longer lives with Sarah, Isaac does not attend his mother’s burial. And they all grieve. Attachment, Separation, Grief.

Families are torn apart for many reasons and often the damage is irreparable. Pain, fear, resentment, and bitterness can run very deep in the souls of those severely traumatized. The parashah affirms at its end, however, that healing is possible, even in very difficult situations.

Parshat Chayei Sarah famously begins by recounting the death of Sarah and ends with the death of Abraham. How different they are! Here is the account of Abraham’s death:
This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre. (Genesis 25:7-9)
The contrast is striking: Isaac was absent from his beloved mother’s funeral. Not only was he present to bury his father Abraham, but he did so together with Ishmael. It’s remarkable that the two half-brothers could come together over anything, and were not permanently alienated after Ishmael and Hagar were banished to insure that Isaac alone would inherit the patrimony (Genesis 21:9-21). The brothers have come together, if only for the brief time necessary to bury their patriarch.

There’s no sugarcoated, sappy happily-ever-after here. No promises. But Torah does hold out hope. So far as we know, Isaac and Ishmael go their separate ways and do not speak to one another again, but they came together at that crucial moment.

We might well wonder: what happened during that short interlude they were together. What did they say to one another? Did they reconcile, at least enough to shed bitterness and resentment? Did they find closure so that they could eventually find peace? I would like to think so, because the message I hear is that healing and reconciliation are sometimes possible when we think them utterly impossible.

Perhaps you’re wondering what happened to Daniel Solomon. His mother Heidi took out eight weeks to provide Daniel a taste of the infanthood he never had. She maintained constant contact with him -- both physical and eye contact -- as if he were a baby. She made Daniel entirely dependent on her, and taught him that his needs would be met without him asking. At the age of 13, for a year his parents cradled Daniel for 20 minutes each night like a baby, talked with him, and fed him ice cream. Eventually Daniel opened up and began to talk about his experiences at the orphanage. All in all, it was a long, arduous, indescribably painful road, but Daniel eventually learned love and empathy. Daniel, who had been escorted out of his family’s synagogue by police officers any number of times, was confirmed there as a teenager, and what is more, he was awarded the prestigious Brickner Award.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

You can hear Heidi, Rick, and Daniel Solomon’s story, as well as Daniel’s speech at Confirmation, on This American Life.

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