CHAYEY SARAH 5774
Today’s Torah portion begins with the story of Abraham finding a grave for the burial of his wife Sarah. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale NY, tells a heart-wrenching story of finding the burial place of his infant son Yitzchak Rafael.
Yitzchak Rafael was his 3rd child. He was afflicted with a dreadful genetic disease, lived into his 4th month and then died. For the 1st few years, he and his wife Toby found it too painful to visit the grave. They finally summoned up the courage to go and called the cemetery to ask for the location of the grave. To their deep horror and dismay, the cemetery had no listing of a grave for Yitzchak Rafael Weiss!
They were frantic. They went to the cemetery to personally ask the staff if they had any record of Yitzchak Rafael’s grave. They said no. They called the congregation on whose grounds they believed their son was laid to rest. They also had no record of his grave. Perhaps, they thought, they had the wrong cemetery. So they visited all the adjoining ones…and still no Yitzchak Rafael. Can you imagine??? It took them years to find the wherewithal to visit and now they couldn’t find him! They were stymied, mystified and heart-broken. It also deeply pained them that they had never put up a gravestone monument.
Several years later Rabbi Weiss had a funeral at the same cemetery. He approached the manager with a quickly beating heart and shaking hands and said, “I believe my infant son Yitzchak Rafael is buried here. Could you check out where his burial plot is?” He went to the back of the room, returned several minutes later and said, “I’m deeply sorry but we have no record of a Yitzchak Rafael Weiss buried here.”
Rabbi Weiss explained how he could not find his infant dead son and asked, “Would you mind if I check your records myself.”
“We don’t usually do this. It’s against protocol, but I’ll make an exception for you.”
The records were hand written and he read them all line by line…and then he saw it. Yitzchak Rafael was not listed as Yitzchak Rafael Weiss but as Rafael Isaac Weiss. The correct days of birth and death were beside his name. Rabbi Weiss had finally found his son!
Right then and there he resolved to put up a proper monument, but didn’t. Every year on his Yahrtzeit he resolved again but just couldn’t do it. It was almost 40 years since his death when a funeral director heard the story and helped him do it.
It was 40 years later, but is there ever a time when it’s just too late? My mother’s 1st husband was a pilot in WWII that was shot down and killed by the Japanese. They never found his body. My mother always wanted to put up a monument to remember him on our family plot in Long Island, but she never could bring herself to do it. It was about 40 years after his death that she told me with tears in her eyes how she wanted to erect such a monument but just couldn’t do it. I helped her make the arrangements, and now the monument stands in our family section at the Wellwood Cemetery.
Let me ask you: Is there ever a time when the statute of limitations has passed? Is there ever a time when it is just too late to say I’m sorry? In my mother’s case and in Rabbi Weiss’s case, after 40 years, could we rectify the wrong?
One of the basic messages of Judaism is that it’s never too late. In the Torah portion 2 weeks ago, when Hagar, Abraham’s 2nd wife is mistreated by Sarah and flees to the desert, an angel tells her to go back for she will have a child with Abraham whose name will be Ishmael. The Torah (Gen. 16:14) goes out of its way to record the place where this revelation occurred: B’eyr Lachai Roi.
Eventually, Sarah and Abraham have Isaac. Probably to insure that Isaac would be the next patriarch, in last week’s parsha (Gen 21:10), Sarah demands the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. While they are cast out with Gd’s approval, the way they were expelled—with only a little bread and water leading to their near death—seems unduly harsh!
In today’s parsha, close to 40 years have passed since the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. Sarah has died. Isaac is about to marry Rebecca. As Isaac goes out to meet her for the 1st time, the Torah tells us that Isaac was coming from B’er Lachai Roi (Gen. 24:62). What was Isaac doing there? And why does the Torah include this seemingly insignificant fact?
Remember, B’er Lachai Roi is the place where the angel told Hagar that Ishmael would be born. Could it be that Isaac felt responsible for their expulsion? After all, Hagar and Ishmael were thrown out to insure that Isaac would become the next patriarch. Now 40 years later the Torah tells us he traveled to B’eyr Lachai Roi where Hagar lives. Why? The Midrash tells us that it was (Rashi, Gen. 24:62) to convince her to come back to Abraham. Precisely when Isaac is about to marry—thereby assuring that he will become the next patriarch—he does teshuva, repentance, by inviting Hagar back into the family.
The message is that it’s never too late! It may be many years later, but that doesn’t stop Isaac from trying to mend the rift he felt responsible for. It doesn’t stop him from going to B’eyr Lachai Roi—connecting with Ishmael and bringing Hagar back. And by doing this, he facilitates reconciliation with his father as well. After the Akeyda, the traumatic near sacrifice of Isaac, it appears from the Torah that Isaac and Abrham stopped speaking to one another. In fact, in the beginning of today’s parsha, Isaac is not even mentioned as participating in his mother’s burial as he is at the end of the parsha participating with his brother Ishmael—with whom he has apparently reconciled—at his father’s funeral.
It would appear that the 1st time Isaac and Abraham see each other again occurs when Isaac marries Rebecca. Isaac brings Hagar to Abraham and no doubt reconciles with his father illustrating once again that it’s never too late.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter told the story of when he once he went to a shoemaker to repair his shoes. It was late and dark. Noting the candle where the shoemaker was working was about to burn out, he said, “I’ll return tomorrow and try again.”
“Do not despair,” said the shoemaker. “As long as the candle burns I can fix shoes.”
The message is clear. As long as there is light flickering, as long as there is a spark of life it’s never too late. It’s never too late to love; it’s never too late to reconcile with your loved ones; it’s never too late to start learning Torah; it’s never too late to draw closer to Gd taking on a stronger religious commitment; and it’s never too late to dream, to do, to accomplish.
Rabbi Weiss writes about his 1st visit to his son’s grave: There we were, Toby and I…at the grave of our infant child. Most mourning involves remembering a person’s past life; when one, however, loses a child, every day one mourns not what was, but what could have been. Every day we would ask, and now at 10 years or 20 or 30 what would Yitzchak Rafael be like, what would he be doing?
…We stood near the grave holding one another. We shed tears. Toby bent over to smooth the stone as if she was cleaning the room and making the bed of her little boy. I whispered to myself, “B’ni, b’ni, haben yakir li, my precious precious son, Yitzchak Rafael, I’m sorry. Please forgive me that I’m so late. I love you Yitzchak Rafael.” And I am convinced I could hear Yitzchak Rafael say, “It’s ok Abba, I love you too.” It’s never too late. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis