“Understanding Ishmael”
(updated and revised from 5762-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, we encounter the birth of Abram’s (his name had not yet been changed to Abraham) oldest son, Ishmael.

The Bible, in Genesis 15, tells us that Sarai, Abram’s wife, (her name had not yet been changed to Sarah) had not borne him any children. In desperation, Sarai says to Abram, Genesis 16:2, הִנֵּה נָא עֲצָרַנִי השׁם מִלֶּדֶת, בֹּא נָא אֶל שִׁפְחָתִי, אוּלַי אִבָּנֶה מִמֶּנָּה, “Behold, G-d has held me back from bearing a child. Come now into my maidservant, perhaps I will be built up through her.” Abram heeds Sarai’s request, and Sarai gave Hagar, her handmaiden, to be a wife to Abram.

When Hagar becomes pregnant immediately after her relations with Abram, scripture, Genesis 16:4, reports that, וַתֵּקַל גְּבִרְתָּהּ בְּעֵינֶיהָ , Hagar had disdain for Sarai. Angered by Hagar’s attitude, Sarai complains to Abram. Abram tells her, Genesis 16:6, “She is your maidservant, do to her as you see fit.” Sarai deals harshly with Hagar, who flees from before her to the desert.

The Midrash Rabbah, on Genesis 16:1, cited by Rashi, provides background 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 by Pharaoh 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 not told Pharaoh that Sarai was really Abram’s wife. Abram and Sarai and all their possessions were expelled from Egypt. The Midrash maintains 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 the visitors, Rashi, (Genesis 16:4), citing the Midrash, notes that Hagar would always 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 instantly?”

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 (see Rashi Genesis 16:5), cast an evil eye upon her. Hagar began to experience terrible pains in her pregnancy (some say that she miscarried), and eventually fled to the wilderness.

Scripture relates, 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 Hagar 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 Isaac, reported in next week’s parasha, the Torah recounts, Genesis 21:9, that Sarah (her new name now) saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian מְצַחֵקm’tzah’chaik—sporting with, or mocking her son Isaac. 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, one of the most challenging was banishing Ishmael. Abraham greatly grieved over having to separate himself from his son, Ishmael, 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. The angel tells Hagar, Genesis 21:18, קוּמִי שְׂאִי אֶת הַנַּעַר, וְהַחֲזִיקִי אֶת יָדֵךְ בּוֹ, כִּי לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימֶנּוּ, “Rise up, lift up the youth and grasp him with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Ishmael eventually recovers from the ordeal and goes to live in the wilderness of Paran. Hagar takes an Egyptian wife for Ishmael.

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, offered the following insightful analysis regarding the relationship of Ishmael to the Jewish people. The Torah, in Genesis 25:18, states, וְאֵלֶּה תֹּלְדֹת יִשְׁמָעֵאל, these are the descendants of Ishmael, עַל פְּנֵי כָל אֶחָיו נָפָל, he dwelt besides all his brothers. Why the language נָפָל –“nafal,” asks Rabbi Frand, which really means to fall? Quoting the Ba’al HaTurim, Rabbi Frand explains that 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 Isaac. When Sarah tells Abraham, Genesis 21:10, גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת בְּנָהּ , “expel this handmaiden and her son,” that is the beginning of the great conflict.

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: הִנָּךְ הָרָה וְיֹלַדְתְּ בֵּן, “behold you are going to bear a child,” כִּי שָׁמַע השׁם אֶל עָנְיֵךְ , “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, as the Torah reports, Genesis 21:17, כִּי שָׁמַע אֱ־לֹקִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר, “G-d heard the cries of the child,” the angel tells Hagar. That is why when Isaac meets Rebeccah, the Torah notes, Genesis 24:62, that he was returning from בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי , the well of the living G-d, the very well at which G-d appeared to Hagar. Apparently, Isaac had gone to Be’er l’Chai Roi 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. The Jewish people need to prove themselves worthy of G-d’s response to their prayers. The People of Israel need to pray with particular 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 (Genesis 16:12), predicts that Ishmael will be a פֶּרֶא אָדָם , a wild man, a “free” man without constraints, let us hope and pray that the power of children of Jacob, who deliberately 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, not only to our embattled nation, but to the entire world.

May you be blessed.