The Well of Trauma
Isaac, Yishmael, and Hagar Walk Into A...
The Triune Brain model, introduced by physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean, explains the brain in three parts:
Reptilian (brain stem): This innermost part of the brain is responsible for survival instincts and autonomic body processes.
Mammalian (limbic, midbrain): The midlevel of the brain, this part processes emotions and conveys sensory relays.
Neommalian (cortex, forebrain): The most highly evolved part of the brain, this area outer controls cognitive processing, decision-making, learning, memory and inhibitory functions.
When a person goes through a traumatic experience, that reptilian brain kicks in for flight or fight mode. Once the person feels secure enough again, we revert back to restorative mode where the body’s normal procedures kick back in.
It’s safe to that Isaac survived a traumatic experience in last week’s portion when, you know, his dad very nearly sacrificed him. We don’t get to see or hear from Isaac afterward, but you can easily imagine him running away from that mountain, from his knife wielding father, and his angry mother and shouting aloud, you people are insane; I am never coming back.
In this week’s portion, we learn of Sarah’s death, Avraham’s burial plot purchase, and Eliezer’s search for a wife for Isaac. That last part is odd because we don’t hear anything from Isaac at all throughout this narrative. It’s as if he’s become a ghost while everyone else keeps living.
Then, after all this back and forth, all these details, we read the following toward the end of the portion1:
Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi, for he was settled in the region of the Negeb. And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” And the servant said, “That is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself.
For the first time since his near-death, Isaac appears. We are told he comes from Be’er Lechai Roi, which seems unnecessary. Why does where he comes from matter at all? The focus here is on the love-at-first-sight meeting between Rebecca and Isaac…
Except, close readers will recognize that place from which he came as the very same place where his half-brother Yishmael and her mother Hagar were banished. That was the place where they too nearly perished from exposure before God stepped in, saved them, and gave them the promise of a future.
From this shared historical and geographical memory we get the following beautiful midrash from a collection called Dirshuni2:
היה יצחק הולך ובורח, ותמה על אביו ועל אמו ועל אלוהיו, וכיצד קרה שנעקד, ומה ראו על ככה ומה הגיע אליו. הלך לו אל המדבר, בארץ לא עבר בה איש ולא ישב אדם שם.
אמרו: איש לא עבר בה, אבל אשה עברה בה, היא הגר, ובאר לחי רואי היא בארה של הגר.
עמד יצחק על אותה הבאר עד שבא לפניו זכרו של ישמעאל, שהיה מצחק עמו כשהיה תינוק, ובא אליו זכרה של הגר, שהייתה מהלכת וחמת מים על שכמה.
ישב יצחק עם הגר וישמעאל, בכה עמם וכעס עמם ימים רבים.
פעם אחת היה עומד על פי הבאר, וירא והנה אל חי רואה אותו, והנה אל חי שומע קולו באשר הוא שם.
ויקום וייקח את הגר והשיבה אל אביו, שנאמר 'ויסף אברהם ויקח אשה ושמה קטורה' (בראשית כה, א) וקטורה היא הגר, שהיה עולה בכייה כקטורת שעל גבי המזבח.
ויקום וייקח את ישמעאל והשיבהו אל אביו, שנאמר 'ויקברו אתו יצחק וישמעאל בניו אל מערת המכפלה' (בראשית כה, ט).
'והשיב לב אבות על בנים' (מלאכי ג, כד).
Isaac escaped and wandered about as he was forlorn about his mother, father, and his God. How could it have been that he was nearly sacrificed?! He came to a place in the desert upon which no man had traipsed. No man did but a woman had. That woman was Hagar.
When Isaac came to that place he saw the memory of Yishmael there who used to be Isaac’s playmate when they were young. Then, the memory of Hagar came to him walking about with her water skin on her shoulder. Isaac sat with Hagar and Yishmael and they cried and got angry over many days for what happened to all of them. At this well, he saw The Living God who heard his call as he was. And Isaac was comforted.
Then, Isaac got up and returned Hagar to his father as we are told later in the portion that Avraham took a wife named Keturah. Keturah is Hagar whose tears rose like incense that were on the altar3. He then took Yishmael and brought him back to his father as it’s stated “and Isaac and Yishmael both buried Abraham.” Thus fulfilling the prophecy, the hearts of the children and the fathers were reconciled.
In a wildly creative interpretation, the writes of Dirshuni, recreate the ending to this story. Isaac finds Hagar and Yishmael, his two “enemies.” In their reunion, they cry, find common ground in their anger, and in doing so, find God’s presence and divine comfort therein. Hagar returns “safely” to Abraham. Isaac and Yishmael are safely reunited.
What do we do when we’re traumatized? We can’t move forward unless we feel safe and stable. Isaac didn’t feel this until he went to the place of the traumatized. There, he found kindred spirits. From that place of stability, he was able to come back into the story by bringing his father, the one that traumatized him, love. He finally turns off the reptilian brain.
Maybe that’s one of the responses we all can strive for in response to trauma. Seek out those that are just as angry and sad as you. Embrace them and cry with them. When your tears have emptied, channel goodness through bringing love into the world in some form. And then?
נתנחם–May we find comfort
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend!
The first ever English edition of an historic collection of midrashim composed by Israeli women
Keturah is the name of this woman and the word for incense. Hence, the linguistic play here.