“The Legacy of Ishmael”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, opens with the death and burial of the matriarch, Sarah, at age 127, and closes with the passing of the patriarch, Abraham, at age 175.

The Torah, in Genesis 25:8, reports, וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה, זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ,  וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל עַמָּיו, Abraham expired and died at a good old age, mature and content, and he was gathered to his people.

The Radak explains that the Hebrew phrase, בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה, good old age, indicates that Abraham lived to see children and grandchildren, and merited to spend his final years steeped in goodness and honor.

Rashi, explains that the Torah describes Abraham’s final days as being, בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה, זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ, good old age, mature and content, because of the dramatic change in the character of Ishmael that the Torah reports in the very next verse. Genesis 25:9 states, וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ יִצְחָק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל בָּנָיו, אֶל מְעָרַת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה, both of Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, buried Abraham in the cave of Machpelah. This, says Rashi, indicates that Ishmael repented, and in fact, allowed Isaac to proceed before him, acknowledging his brother’s superiority, even though Ishmael was older. Abraham’s final days were thus days of enormous happiness and contentment.

After Abraham’s death, the Torah, in Genesis 25:11, relates that, וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱ־לֹקִים אֶת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ, וַיֵּשֶׁב יִצְחָק עִם בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי, G-d blessed Isaac, Abraham’s son, and Isaac settled in Be’er Lechai Roi. Apparently only Isaac, not Ishmael, was blessed. Furthermore, the fact that Isaac settles in Be’er Lechai Roi, which is a location strongly identified with Ishmael, is very telling about the unresolved relationship between the brothers (Chayei Sarah 5760-1999).

Now that Sarah and Abraham have passed on and Isaac is settled, the Torah concludes the weekly portion of Chayei Sarah with a list of Ishmael’s numerous descendants.

In Genesis 25:12, the Torah states, וְאֵלֶּה תֹּלְדֹת יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן אַבְרָהָם,  אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית שִׁפְחַת שָׂרָה לְאַבְרָהָם, These are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s maidservant, bore to Abraham.

The Torah, in Genesis 25:16 notes, אֵלֶּה הֵם בְּנֵי יִשְׁמָעֵאל, וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמֹתָם בְּחַצְרֵיהֶם וּבְטִירֹתָם–שְׁנֵים-עָשָׂר נְשִׂיאִם, לְאֻמֹּתָם, These are the sons of Ishmael, and these are their names by their courtyards and by their strongholds, twelve chieftains for their nations. It is hardly a coincidence that Ishmael has twelve sons. Esau also has twelve offspring, fulfilling a tradition in Abraham’s family, that a family of twelve children will eventually lead to redemption.

The Torah then records the death of Ishmael at age 137. Despite his penitence, Ishmael is not buried in Machpelah. We are also told that Ishmael’s descendants dwell from Chavilah to Shur, which is near Egypt, towards Syria, and that Ishmael and his descendants dwell over all of his brothers.

Because of the ambivalence noted in the Biblical texts, Ishmael gets mixed reviews among the Bible commentators. Rashi cites a very encouraging statement from the Talmud in Baba Batra 16b, that Ishmael did teshuva (repented) and showed respect to his brother, Isaac. The statement, while very positive, is not enough to erase Ishmael’s lingering reputation as a person of bad character.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, notes that when the Torah, in Genesis 25:12, states, וְאֵלֶּה תֹּלְדֹת יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן אַבְרָהָם, these are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the Hebrew word, תֹּלְדֹת, (descendants) is missing both “vavs,” a spelling that is rarely found in the Bible. This, says Rabbi Hirsch, comes to underscore the fact that the inner spirit of the children of Ishmael was deficient, and that his children do not have the advantage of having זְכוּת אָבוֹת, merits of their fathers, advocating on their behalf during their lives, as did the children of Isaac.

On the other hand, some commentators find allusions in the Biblical text regarding Ishmael that can be interpreted in a favorable light. The Malbim notes that Genesis 25:13 states, וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׁמָעֵאל, בִּשְׁמֹתָם לְתוֹלְדֹתָם, These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, with their names by their births. The Malbim suggests that it is common for people to change their names when they become nations, but Ishmael’s children retained their names, indicating that they were endowed with special qualities.

Rabbi Hirsch maintains that the names of Ishmael’s leaders, who are known as נְשִׂיאִים, are names that last forever. The Malbim notes further that both the leaders of Ishmael and Israel are called, “N’see’eem,” meaning “those who bear.” Rabbi Hirsch explains that “N’see’eem” are leaders who are like clouds that absorb from the earth, but give back to the earth in the form of rain. The leaders of Esau, however, are called אַלּוּפִים “Ah’loo’fim,” representing raw power, and seek only to dominate, benefitting only themselves. The leaders of Ishmael and Israel are leaders who take responsibility and are not focused on self-aggrandizement.

The May’am Loez says that the names of Ishmael’s children that are mentioned (Genesis 25:14), “Mishmah, Dumah and Massa,” are sacred names that have hidden meanings, indicating that, “One who bears no grudge and forgives friends, will merit Torah.”

That all of the names of Ishmael’s children are recorded in the Torah is also very unusual. The rabbis attribute it to the fact that Ishmael showed great respect to his deceased father, which is indicated by the fact that Ishmael traveled a great distance to bury his deceased father Abraham.

When evaluating Ishmael, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch finds ambivalent indications in the verse, Genesis 25:16. The Torah states, אֵלֶּה הֵם בְּנֵי יִשְׁמָעֵאל, וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמֹתָם בְּחַצְרֵיהֶם וּבְטִירֹתָם, These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names by their “courtyards” and by their “strongholds.” Rabbi Hirsch concludes that the Torah’s use of the words “courtyards” and “strongholds,” suggests that Ishmael and his descendants are endowed with characteristics they inherited from both Abraham and Hagar. In spirit and intelligence, they are similar to Abraham. However, with respect to morals, they are more like Hagar.

Rabbi Hirsch maintains that the children of Ishmael do not submit to the constraints, חַצְרֵיהֶם, towns, nor to טִירֹתָם, absolute rulers.

The commentators find an alternate interpretation to the conclusion of the verse, שְׁנֵים-עָשָׂר נְשִׂיאִם, לְאֻמֹּתָם, usually translated as twelve chieftains for their nations, to mean אִמָּהוֹת, referring to mothers–that only the mothers of the Ishmaelites were known for sure, but not their fathers. Again, casting aspersions on the children of Ishmael.

While certain commentators demonstrate that there are numerous negative ways of reading the texts concerning Ishmael and his children, it is clear that the Ishmaelites are endowed with many special and favorable qualities, which they inherited from their noble forebear, Abraham.

Despite the tendency to downplay the positive endowments of our Ishmaelite cousins, it is impossible to deny or disregard the extraordinary powers of Ishmaelite prayer (Lech Lecha 5762-2002). While the values that they inherited from Hagar may be murky, the spirit and intelligence that they inherited from their father Abraham, endowed them with nobility that cannot be denied.

After all the millennia, the descendants of Isaac and the children of Ishmael–the Arabs and the Palestinians, have still not reconciled with one another. Hopefully, that reconciliation will not be long in coming. But, it is certainly important to acknowledge and respect the special qualities of the children of Ishmael that are clearly identified by the Torah and by many of our illustrious commentators.

May you be blessed.