The generation of Avraham and Sarah passes, and a number of life transitions occur in this portion. There are three deaths and burials: Sarah (Bereishit 23:1-19), Avraham (25:7-10) and Yishmael (25:17). There are also two marriages: Yitchak marries Rivkah (Ch. 24) and Avraham marries Keturah, whom the Sages identify as Hagar (25:1-4). These milestones shift the focus, by the end of Chayei Sarah, to the generation of Yitzchak and Rivkah.
Earlier (21:9-21), Yishmael and his mother Hagar had been separated from Yitzchak, at the insistence of Sarah and the command of Hashem, because of Yishmael’s mockery. But, what happens, upon Avraham’s death, to the relationship between Yitzchak and Yishmael?
The fact that, together, these two sons bury their father suggests a reconciliation between them. Our Rabbis teach (Bava Batra 16b) that Yishmael repented during his father’s lifetime, and he even accepted Yitzchak’s primacy as the inheritor of Avraham by placing Yitzchak before him in the funeral procession.
At the time of Avraham’s death, Yitzchak is 75 and Yishmael, who is 89, has 48 more years to live. Perhaps it is this opportunity for a significant reconciliation that now motivates Yitzchak to settle near the Well Lachai Ro’i, “the well of the living G-d Who sees me,” a place closely connected with Yishmael and Hagar.
The first time the Well was mentioned, was in reference to the place where Hagar fled from Sarah’s chastising (16:6-14). There, she was found by an angel (according to a midrash quoted by Rashi, there were four angels)
by the spring of water, the spring on the Shur road (16:7),
who enjoined her to return and submit to her mistress’s will. She was also informed about the birth of her child who would be called
Yishmael, because Hashem has heard (SH-M-‘A) your suffering (16:11).
Then, she called upon Hashem:
This would place the well in the Negev, in the south-western region of the land of Canaan.
On the words “he called the well,” Hirsch (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888) comments that, after Hagar reported her experience to her husband, Avraham named it, highlighting that Hashem not only sees, but lives. Thus, the well is known to Avraham’s family as a place of Divine revelation.
When Yishmael and Hagar were cast out of Avraham’s house, they settled in the area of this well:
Rather than return to Egypt, her country of origin, Hagar chose to stay closer to Avraham, who was also living in the Negev at the time (20:1). Perhaps, too, she wished to be close to the Well Lachai Ro’i, where she had had her first miraculous encounter and where she had first been informed of Yishmael’s birth.
The next time the Well is mentioned, Rivkah, accompanied by Avraham’s servant, is arriving from the north-east when they encounter Yitzchak:
Why had Yitzchak been at the well? Malbim (R. Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, 1809-1877) says that Yitzchak went there regularly (as suggested by the repetitive expression BA MIBBO), because it was a place of Divine revelation, ever since Hagar’s confrontation with the angel(s). Rashi, quoting the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 60:13) says that Yitzchak brought Hagar back from there so that Avraham could re-marry her.
Avraham learned from Sarah and Hashem that Yitzchak could flourish, materially and spiritually, only if he is isolated from his half-brothers. Thus, with regard to his other children, including Yishmael, Avraham
Nevertheless, there appears to have been sufficient ongoing connection between Yitzchak and Yishmael for them to be reunited for Avraham’s burial:
And Yitzchak and Yishmael his sons buried him in the cave of the Machpelah.
Where does Yishmael go after the funeral? Does he remain close to Yitzchak, or does he return to the land of the east?
We do not know. But, perhaps now Yitzchak chooses to settle in a place that, even if Yishmael is no longer there, would forever be associated with the one common point of spiritual contact they received from Avraham: that Hashem is “the Living One Who sees me.”
This shared legacy is illustrated in the following incident: Shimon ben-Shetach’s students purchased a donkey for him from a Yishmaelite. No one realized, however, that the animal had a jewel hanging from it, until the students informed their teacher of his good fortune, since the halacha does not require him to return it. Nonetheless, Shimon ben-Shetach commanded them to return the jewel, whereupon the Yishmaelite declared “Blessed be Hashem the G-d of the Jews!” This, said the sage, was worth more than all the treasures of this world (Jerusalem Talmud Bava Metzi’a 2:5; Devarim Rabbah 3:5).
Yitzchak will have to “go it alone” as he prepares to lead Hashem’s people into the future. But, Yishmael - and his descendants - must know what they share with Yitzchak: the recognition that Hashem is actively present in the events of this world.