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A Lost Brother

08/30/2015 03:12:09 PM


Rabbi Jennifer Jaech

Almost forty years ago, mid-way through his freshman year at the University of Washington in Seattle, my older brother vanished.  One day he left the campus and did not return.  My brother didn’t take much with him.  He left his clothing and all of his possessions.  His dorm room looked as if he had just stepped out for a moment.  A few days later my father received a post card mailed from a town in Oregon.  On the card my brother had written that my father shouldn’t worry, and that he was not taking drugs. 

Days passed, and then weeks, with no further word from my brother.  Someone went to his dorm room and packed my brother’s personal possessions into a cardboard box.  Somehow, the box ended up with me.

There wasn’t much in the box.  Its contents smelled like the sandalwood incense that my brother must have burned in his dorm room.  But there were a couple of notebooks that my brother had written in, jotting down poetry and random observations; some of his words clearly reflected his emotional suffering.  I pored over those notebooks, looking for clues to explain his disappearance. I wanted to understand what had happened.  It didn’t make sense that my brother would just pick up and leave.  Why did he abandon his life, and (I couldn't help but ask) why did he abandon me?

My grandfather took it upon himself to try to find my brother but there wasn’t much to go on.  I remember hearing that my brother was picked up in California for some kind of minor crime, like jaywalking or stealing from a dumpster – but I don’t remember the details.  My grandfather traveled to the town where it happened and spoke to the police.   Based on my grandfather’s conversation with the police and other clues he pieced together, we realized that my brother had joined a religious cult.  This cult required its followers to live in abject poverty and travel all over spreading the message that the world was about to come to an end.   

It was during this time that the world literally came to an end for the hundreds of followers of Jim Jones who died in a mass murder-suicide.  Although we didn't really think my brother was in Jonestown, still, we checked the list of those who died, looking for his name.

I thought about my lost brother every day.  We used to play together when we were kids, even though he was four years older and tended to tease and push me around.  Still, he was my brother.  When he disappeared, I felt that a part of me went missing with him.  Somehow I was diminished. 


Our Torah portion for today also tells the story of a lost brother.  In the Torah’s story, Ishmael is the oldest son of Abraham, born to Sarah’s Egyptian slave Hagar.  Isaac is the younger son, born to Sarah.  One day, Sarah sees Ishmael playing.  Rabbinic tradition teaches that Ishmael was playing with Isaac.  Sarah orders Abraham “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”[1]  Reluctantly, Abraham sends Ishmael and his mother Hagar away from their home.

I have often thought of this story from the perspective of Ishmael and Hagar, the two who are uprooted and sent into the wilderness.   But I have never stopped to consider the story from the perspective of Isaac, the one who lost his brother.  Did Isaac watch silently while Ishmael left their home?  Did Isaac realize that his brother would not return?   

The Torah tells us that Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father Abraham[2] when he died.   But that seems to be the extent of their relationship.  From the moment Ishmael leaves home, the brothers are lost to each other.

We know that the Torah’s tale of Isaac and Ishmael is more than a story about a family.  The brothers represent ancestors of two peoples.  In the Hebrew Bible, Ishmaelites are identified as the Arab neighbors of the ancient Israelites.   As time passes, Jewish tradition claims Isaac as one of our patriarchs, while Muslims lay claim to Ishmael.

Five years passed before my brother made tentative contact with our family again.  When I first saw my brother after his long absence I hardly recognized him.  He had grown a long beard and was dressed strangely, wearing a battered overcoat that was much too large for him.  Only his blue eyes and his soft voice seemed familiar to me, but that wasn’t enough to overcome the distance between us.  I didn’t know how to talk to my brother.  I didn’t know what to say about why he left and where he had been.  My childhood playmate had become almost unrecognizable to me.

And so it is with the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael.  We hardly recognize each other as brothers.  Generations have passed since Isaac and Ishmael played together.  Conflicts, wars, fear and hatred have too often obscured our familial connection. 

A story in the Forward[3] published this past summer illustrated this truth for me.  Reporters went to interview elderly Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union at a senior center in South Brooklyn.  It's reasonable to expect that former refugees who have fled persecution would recognize some kinship with the refugees and immigrants of today.  As the Forward’s reporters discovered, that’s not always the case. 

One former refugee from Moldova is quoted in the article, speaking of presidential candidate Donald Trump:  “I like his honesty, that he’s against Muslims, that he’s against refugees.”  Another said:  “We came here as immigrants in our own time.  But we can’t let crooks in.”  And another who emigrated from Kiev only thirteen years ago, said:  “I think that enough immigrants have entered this country.”

What's behind the anti-refugee, anti-immigrant sentiment expressed by these former refugees and immigrants?  A business man from South Brooklyn and former member of the State Assembly explained:  “There is a widely spread opinion in the Russian Jewish community that…all Muslims are terrorists.”  Another senior interviewed explained his anti-immigrant stance by saying that Russian immigrants are of a higher quality than those seeking to enter from other countries.[4]

It was hard for me to accept that Jews who had experienced brutal oppression in their own lifetime would be so indifferent to the suffering of others.  Their views were in direct contradiction to the words of Torah "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt."[5]   These words of Torah remind us that our past suffering should make us more sensitive to the suffering of others.  Yet those who were interviewed for this article did not recognize their connection -- their kinship -- with the refugees of today.  Their lack of compassion did not reflect the highest values of our Jewish tradition.  In consequence, they are diminished.  

Today we have an opportunity to reclaim our kinship with some of those who trace their line back to our brother Ishmael.  Our world is facing the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War, when our Jewish people desperately sought to flee Hitler's murderous regime.  Today descendants of our lost brother Ishmael desperately flee the atrocities of Syria and other war-torn regions.  

Last month our Temple Board voted to participate in the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society's "Welcoming the Stranger" campaign.  Members of our Sisterhood and congregation are actively working with other faith communities to help resettle refugee families to Westchester County.  In the time ahead there will be opportunities for more people to be involved.  You will hear more details as they become available. When we ask for your help, I hope you will respond with open hearts and willing hands.

We are diminished when we lose a brother.  But we need not remain that way forever. In this New Year we can say to our lost brother Ishmael:  "Though we have grown apart, I still recognize you as my brother. I open my hand to you, my kin.  If you hunger, I will feed you.  If you need shelter, I will find you a home.  Though others may forget, I remember.  I remember that once, long ago, we used to play together, two brothers in the tent of our father, Abraham."

Note:  After I delivered this sermon, several people asked me what happened to my brother.  I am happy to say that he left the cult within a year of making initial contact with our family.  He finished college and graduate school and started a family of his own.  It seems he has found what he was searching for.

[1] Genesis 21: 10

[2] Genesis 25: 9


[4] “The people who came from Russian and the former Soviet Union are doctors, teachers, lawyers,” Said Leonid Lvovich, 87, who emigrated from Azerbaijan in 1992. “The people who come from Latin America are lower-class workers.”

[5] Exodus 23:9; see also Exodus 22:20

Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779