(delivered on Friday evening, 11/9/12 [25 Cheshvan 5773])
Near the end of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (Gen. 23:1 – 25:18), we read of Abraham’s final years, after the death and burial of Sarah, and after the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca.
We learn in Gen 25:1 that Abraham takes another wife, named Keturah. The Torah text doesn't tell us anything else about Keturah --- but Jewish midrashic tradition steps in as it often does to try to fill in some of the blanks:
In the classic rabbinic midrash collection, Bereshit Rabba, we learn that this Keturah was none other than Hagar, the mother of Abraham’s first son Ishmael. Hagar and Ishmael had been sent away years before, but, according to this midrashic version, Abraham called Hagar back to be with him in his final years after the death of her rival Sarah.
The medieval commentator Rashi states that the name Keturah comes from the fact that her deeds were as beautiful as the "Ketoret" or “incense” that would be used in the ancient Temple.
Some contemporary scholars suggest that the name Ketura means that she was connected by family ties to the incense and spice traders of eastern Arabia. In the modern commentary "The Five Books of Miriam", Ellen Frankel connects the name "Keturah" with "Keter" meaning crown or wreath --- suggesting that Keturah was a princess.
Rashi also quotes another midrash that connects the name Keturah with the Aramaic verb "ketar", meaning “to tie” According to this midrash Keturah had "tied" her womb, and not been sexually involved with any other man from the time that she had separated from Abraham years before.
We may or may not find these midrashic flights of fancy convincing. Indeed, other medieval commentators dispute the identification of Keturah with Hagar. However, I personally find it very moving to imagine that Keturah was Hagar. This means that Abraham's life could end on a note of reconciliation after the various crises and trials that he had lived through in the decades before.
And perhaps this explains how, a few verses later at Gen. 25:9, it can happen that Isaac and Ishmael bury their father together. Perhaps there is a long hoped for reconciliation there too. And, if not a full-scale reconciliation, at least it shows that they were capable of joining together to address a common task.
As we read in the Torah tonight of this reconciliation within the family of Abraham, it’s tempting to follow the typical homiletic spin of also praying for reconciliation among the various political factions within our country. That’s a worthwhile aspiration in the sense of hoping that we can all respect one another’s humanity, and that we can all ascribe sincere motivations to one another’s actions.
Indeed, during this heated battle in Minnesota to defeat the attempt to impose homophobic discrimination into the State Constitution, we were encouraged to pursue a strategy of conversation – of getting to know our ideological opponents on a personal level in the hope that this would lead to reconciliation around a shared belief in fairness for all.
And from this week’s Torah portion, we could even claim that conversation is itself a form of prayer. Our sages say that Mincha, the daily afternoon prayer, was first initiated by Isaac, basing their claim on Gen. 24:63 ---
וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה, לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב
“Isaac went out to meditate in the field towards evening” --
and the verb “lasu’ach” – here translated as “to meditate” also has the meaning of “to converse.”
However, speaking personally, with the conclusion of this election cycle I feel massively relieved but deeply bruised. In Minnesota and elsewhere, this year we witnessed attempts to turn the clock back on civil rights for those already facing discrimination, and we faced off against attempts to suppress voter participation for those already hindered by economic adversity. And we saw attempts to destroy the societal safety net in order to coddle the rich. Thankfully, we defeated those attempts.
And now, as we face the future, reconciliation on a personal level is important, but such reconciliation should not desensitize us from the need to continue struggling for justice and equity in society. When it comes to those goals, there is a fine line between compromise and caving in. I hope and pray that we don’t cave in, and that we continue the good fight.