“Understanding Ishmael”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, we encounter the birth of Abrams’s oldest son, Ishmael.

The bible, in Genesis 15, tells us that Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not borne him any children. In desperation, Sarai says to Abram, (Genesis 16:2) “Hee’nay nah atz’rah’nee Hashem mee’leh’det. Bo nah el shif’cha’tee, ooh’lai ee’bah’neh mee’meh’nah,” Behold, said Sarai, G-d has held me back from bearing a child. Come now into my maidservant, perhaps I will be built up through her. Abram heeded Sarai’s appeal, and Sarai gave Hagar, her handmaiden, to be a wife to Abram.

When Hagar becomes pregnant immediately after her relations with Abram, scripture tells us (Genesis 16:4): “Va’tay’kal g’veer’tah b’ay’neh’hah,” Hagar had disdain for Sarai. Sarai complains angrily to Abram. Abram tells her, “She is your maidservant. Do to her as you see fit.” Sarai deals harshly with Hagar, who flees from before her to the desert.

A Midrash cited by Rashi provides background as to Hagar’s origins. The Torah relates that when famine struck Canaan, Abram left to go to Egypt with Sarai. Because the Egyptians were told by Abram that Sarai was Abram’s sister, not his wife, Pharaoh took Sarai as a concubine. Abram was rewarded for Sarai’s sake, and given sheep, cattle, donkeys, slaves, maidservants, female donkeys and camels.

Soon the house of Pharaoh was stricken on account of Sarai. Pharaoh rebukes Abram harshly, demanding to know why Abram had deceived him and did not tell Pharaoh that Sarai was really Abram’s wife. Abram and Sarai and all their possessions are expelled from Egypt. The Midrash Rabah, cited by Rashi on Genesis 16:1, says that “Hagar the Egyptian maidservant” was actually Pharaoh’s daughter. When Pharaoh saw the miracles which were performed on behalf of Sarai, Pharaoh said to himself, “Better my daughter be a maidservant in the household of Sarai, than a matron in another household.”

Other Midrashim inform us that despite the fact that Hagar treated her former mistress contemptuously, Sarai was particularly tender to her. When noble matrons came to Sarai’s home, Sarai always urged them to pay a visit to “poor Hagar.” Upon meeting Hagar, she would use the opportunity to disparage Sarai. “My Lady Sarai,” she would say, “is not inwardly what she appears to be outwardly. She gives the impression of being a righteous pious woman, but she is not. For if she were truly righteous, how can her childlessness be explained after so many years of marriage, while I became pregnant at once?”

Although Sarai felt it was beneath her dignity to bicker with her former maidservant, she gave vent to her rage in her words to Abram.

Abram, who was modest and unassuming, conferred full power on Sarai to dispose of Hagar. He added one caveat, warning Sarai that having once declared Hagar a “mistress,” she could not again be reduced to the state of bondwoman. Sarai did not heed this warning, and exacted the services of a slave from Hagar. She tormented Hagar, and, according to the Midrash, cast an evil eye upon her. Hagar began to experience terrible pains in her pregnancy and eventually fled to the wilderness.

Scripture tells us, in Genesis 16:7, that an angel of G-d finds Hagar in the wilderness by a spring of water, on the road to Shur. The angel instructs Hagar to return to her mistress and submit herself to Sarai’s domination. As a reward, the angel promises her that G-d will greatly increase her offspring. She will be blessed with so many progeny that they will not be counted for abundance. In Genesis 16:11-12, the angel informs Hagar of the details of the child’s birth. “Behold you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you shall name him Ishmael, for G-d has heard your prayers. And he shall be a wild man, his hand shall be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him; and over all his brothers shall he dwell.”

After the miraculous birth of Yitzchak, reported in next week’s parasha Genesis 21, the Torah tells us (Genesis 21:9) that Sarah (that’s her new name now) saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian m’tzah’chaik–mocking. The rabbis explain that this term denotes three cardinal sins: idolatry, adultery and murder, acts which convinced Sarah that Ishmael could not remain in the household with her son, and had to be sent away. Of all the trials that Abraham had to endure, none was so hard as this. Abraham greatly grieved over having to separate himself from his son, but G-d tells Abraham specifically that he must listen to whatever Sarah says.

Hagar and Ishmael are cast out into the wilderness, with but a loaf of bread and a skin of water. Soon the water is depleted, and Ishmael is delirious from thirst. Hagar casts Ishmael under the shrubs, to spare herself the agony of seeing the death of her child. An angel of G-d calls out to Hagar from heaven and instructs her not to fear, for G-d has heard the cry of the youth. Genesis 21:18, “Ku’mee s’eeh et ha’na’ar, va’ha’chaz’eekee et ya’dai’ch bo, kee l’goy gadol ah’see’meh’nu.” Rise up, lift up the youth and grasp him with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him. Ishmael recovers from the ordeal, and goes to live in the wilderness of Paran. Hagar takes an Egyptian wife for Ishmael.

This year, in a speech delivered during the Aseret Y’mai T’shuvah (the Ten Days of Repentance) on behalf of Just One Life, Rabbi Yisocher Frand of Ner Israel Baltimore made the following insightful analysis of the relationship of Ishmael to the Jewish people. The Torah tells us in Genesis 25:18, “V’ay’leh tol’dot Yishmael,” these are the descendants of Ishmael, “Al p’nay kol eh’ch’av nafal,” he dwelt besides all his brothers. Why the language nafal, asks Rabbi Frand, which really means to fall? Quoting the Ba’al HaTurim, Rabbi Frand explains that only when Ishmael will have his downfall, only then will the Moshiach come. In effect, the Torah predicts that there is going to be an epic battle which will continue throughout history between the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Yitzchak. When Sarah tells Abraham (Genesis 21:10), “Ga’raish et ha’ama ha’azot v’et b’nah,” expel this handmaiden and her son, that is the beginning of this great battle.

Rabbi Frand underscores that only two nations in the world have names that are invested with the name of G-d–only Ishmael and Yisrael. Because he has G-d’s name in his name, Ishmael feels that everything he does, no matter how evil or perverted, can be justified in the name of G-d.

Rabbi Frand points out additionally that Ishmael is armed with a potent weapon, a supreme weapon, that he can use to his advantage–the power of prayer. After all, Ishmael is born as a result of the power of prayer. The angels tell Hagar (Genesis 16:11), “Hee’nach harah v’ya’ladet ben,” behold you are going to bear a child, “Kee sha’ma Hashem et ahn’yaich,” for G-d has heard the cry of your travail. After the expulsion from Abraham’s home, Ishmael himself is saved by the power of prayer. Genesis 21:17 reads: “Kee sha’ma Elokim et kol ha’na’ar,” G-d heard the cries of the child, the angel tells Hagar. That is why when Yitzchak meets Rebeccah, the Torah reports that he was returning from Be’er L’chai Ro’eeh, (Genesis 24:62) the well of the living G-d, the very well at which G-d appeared to Hagar. Yitzchak goes to Be’er L’chai Ro’eeh in order to neutralize Ishmael’s prayer. The Pirkei D’rav Eliezer asks why Ishmael’s name is constructed in the future tense, G-d will hear, rather than in the past tense? The Midrash suggests that the future tense implies that the cries of G-d’s people who are suffering at the hand of Ishmael will be heard by G-d. “Yishmael,” means that the prayers of the Jews will be heard and will be answered.

Perhaps this is the challenge that we face at this momentous juncture in Jewish history. We need to prove ourselves worthy of G-d’s response to our prayers. We need to pray with fervor and commitment in order to effectively counteract our cousins, the Ishmaelites, who are experts at prayer. They pray with zeal–five times a day. They are willing to march for thousands of miles to visit Mecca and Medina in order to show their commitment to prayer.

And while the Torah predicts that Ishmael will be a perah adam, a wild man, a free man without constraints, let us hope and pray that the power of the children of Jacob, who purposely choose to live by constraints, will reign in the power of the wild man. May the prayers and the good deeds of our people Israel bring peace to this embattled planet.

May you be blessed.