Isaac’s Search

Parashat Hayyei Sarah

After the Akeidah, Isaac seems to disappear.

At the opening of the story, as Abraham and Isaac journey toward the land of Moriah at God’s command, the Torah takes special care to tell us that “the two of them walked on together” (Genesis 22:6). And yet after the intense drama of the Akeidah, after the angel has stayed Abraham’s hand, we hear only that “Abraham then returned to his servants” (22:19), with whom he travels home to Be’er-sheba. The sensitive reader cannot help but ask: Where is Isaac?

The next time we meet Isaac, in this week’s parashah, we are told that he “had just come back from the vicinity of Be’er-lahai-ro’i” (24:62). Where is Be’er-lahai-ro’i, and more importantly, what is it? A few chapters earlier, when Hagar had been cast out by Abraham for the first time, an angel had discovered her and promised her vast offspring, including a child who could fend for himself and could not be easily victimized or enslaved (16:11-12). The angel informs Hagar that “God has heard your suffering” (16:11). She names God “El-ro’i,” the God of seeing, and the place where God2 has seen her “Be’er-lahai-ro’i,” the meaning of which is hard to decipher but which has something to do with seeing or being seen by God. Cast out, alone in the desert, Hagar discovers—or better, is discovered by—a God who regards the unregarded, who remembers those whom others have forgotten.

By telling us that Isaac has gone to Be’er-lahai-ro’i, the text subtly tells us something extremely important. Where does Isaac go in the aftermath of the Akeidah? To the place where Hagar met God. Sure enough, a midrash observes that when we encounter Isaac coming from Be’er-lahai-ro’i, he has just come back from a mission: “He had gone to bring Hagar home, the one who sat by the well and said to the Life of the World: ‘See my humiliation’” (Genesis Rabbah 60:14). And when we hear in the next chapter that after Sarah’s death Abraham takes a new wife named Keturah, a midrash insists that Keturah is really Hagar (Genesis Rabbah 61:4). In the Rabbinic imagination, in other words, after Sarah’s death, Isaac arranges for his father to marry Hagar.

But why did Isaac go to Be’er-lahai-ro’i? Why does he want and need to find Hagar?

Perhaps Isaac, newly traumatized, goes to find comfort in his father’s other wife, undoubtedly bearing some deep traumas of her own. Perhaps, newly traumatized, Isaac also has newfound compassion for Hagar’s predicament and seeks not only to be consoled but also to offer consolation. Having been made to suffer at Abraham’s hands, he has a newfound capacity to embrace those who have endured a similar fate.

Arguably, though, something even deeper is going on here. Isaac has just come from a terrifying encounter with God’s mysterious, uncompromisingly demanding side. Much of what had guided him has been called into dramatic and excruciating question: Who is Abraham, a father who declares his presence to Isaac and yet agrees to sacrifice him? And who is the God who demands such behavior of Abraham? Isaac—confused, troubled, likely somewhat lost—heads for the one place he knows where a very different face of God has been revealed: Be’er-lahai-ro’i, the place where God sees and hears those who have been cast out. Isaac goes to Be’er-lahai-ro’i, then, for three intertwined reasons: to comfort Hagar, to be comforted by her (and in the process, to bring together a fractured family), and to rediscover a face of God that has been eclipsed for him—the God of mercy and compassion rather than stern judgment (or sheer inscrutability).

Sometimes we imagine God too intimately, as if God were all sweetness and light. This is what the prophet Jeremiah rails against: “Am I only a God near at hand—says the Lord—and not a God far away?” (Jeremiah 23:23). And yet just as often, we imagine God too far away, all distance and unapproachability. Isaac has just experienced the terror of an utterly mysterious God, and now, to preserve both his faith and his sanity, he goes in search of the tenderness of an utterly loving One. Perhaps Isaac can remind us, too, of the possibility of being met by the God who saw Hagar, by the God of compassion who never forgets us, no matter how downtrodden and cast off we may sometimes feel.