This morning, I joined the hospital’s Palliative Care team as they met with a group of siblings whose mother had had a devastating stroke yesterday. While the team was still seeking more medical information, the conversation included a healthy dose of “when to let go.” Only a couple of months earlier, the sister who holds their mother’s Power of Attorney, and their mother had sat down with a hospital staff member to talk about Mom’s wishes at the end of life. The sister-daughter described how the staff person had walked them through various scenarios of medical circumstances that they might find themselves in and to give Mom the opportunity to state her own choices. The daughter reported being shocked at some of their mother’s responses, all of which were coming into play at this moment, only a couple of months later. The siblings were all in a certain amount of shock, despite her declining condition over the five years since their father’s death. But hearing the clarity with which their mother had spoken only recently seemed to ease their hearts as they would now be acting as their mother’s deciders. They were an amazing group: they all seemed to be on the same page and clearly had their mother’s best interests at their core, and while each one was struggling in their own way, they were all closing in on the same decision to honor their mother’s wishes. This would mean letting go of her and helping her make the transition from this world to whatever comes next. It was truly a holy moment.
And it made me think about Isaac in the midst of this week’s torah portion, Toledot (Generations). Rebekah conspires with Jacob to deceive her husband and give Jacob, rather than his older twin, Esau, the blessing that would make him the leader of the family. Isaac was old and blind, and, while he clearly felt confused by the trick of animal skins for his son’s hairy arms and the choice supper, he went along with or fell for the ruse.
When Isaac realized he had been tricked, the Torah reports that he began to tremble violently (Gen. 27:33). Rashi, the medieval commentator, comments that Isaac saw Hell open up before him. While not wanting to get into a discussion about medieval Jewish visions of Hell, I think we have to assume that it’s not a good place, likely terrifying. So being lied to by wife and son brought on, in Rashi’s thinking, Hell.
It probably triggered memories from that whole episode with his father apparently ready to sacrifice him, so that betrayal carried a much heavier weight for Isaac than for, say, Rebekah, or Esau, at that point.
I imagine Isaac trembling from the horror of being lied to and of betraying his son–as his father had betrayed him–through no fault of his own, except not trusting his own instincts. I imagine Esau trying to make sense of what happened to him, of being filled with the rage of betrayal, and I cry for him. Even if he was not the “right person” to inherit the responsibility for the Abramovich (or Ben Abraham) family, his family might have approached it differently, saving him years of agony or therapy.
As I think today of the family surprised at their mother’s end of life choices, I wonder whether Rebekah believed that Isaac was no longer able to make good decisions and didn’t know how to tell him. Maybe they hadn’t reach a place where they could have this type of discussion. And I wonder if Esau thought his father had gone along with the the ruse because that’s what he believed his father really, secretly wanted anyway.
When I was young, my family chose to keep a large secret from me, so that it wasn’t just a secret, it was an out and out lie, because they believed they were protecting me from the truth. And, while now I totally understand where they were coming from, many years later, I spent many formative years believing there was no one I could trust: the people who were supposed to protect me, shelter me, help me feel supported, all of them abandoned me and left me feeling no one would tell me the truth. So I can understand Isaac’s feeling like he was standing at the gates of hell. I know that place.
Our secrets separate us from the people we love, the people who love us. Our lack of curiosity about what is important to the people we love can also harm our relationships, and our ability to care for each other in those important moments of transition or transformation.
Do you know what your loved one wants in medical emergencies? Do you know what you want, and have you shared it, in detail with the ones you love? Have you shared important family information with those who really do need to know it? Or have you decided they can’t handle it? If you’ve decided on the latter, are you sure? Have you checked it out with anyone else?
This is a good week to take care of these issues and discussions, or at least start them. Good luck and happy talking. Shabbat shalom.