“The Judgment of Ishmael and its Contemporary Implications for all of G-d’s Creatures”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Because this coming Shabbat is Rosh Hashana, the normal weekly Torah reading cycle is suspended. Instead, on the first day of Rosh Hashana the Torah portion of Genesis 21, dealing with the birth of Isaac, is read.

The Torah commentators offer a host of interesting reasons for the relevance of this particular portion to Rosh Hashana. The Talmud in Rosh Hashana 10b says: “On the new year, Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah were visited,” meaning that G-d remembered them, and these barren women became pregnant. Genesis 21: 1, reads, “Va’hashem pa’kad et Sarah ka’asher a’mar,” And G-d remembered Sarah as He had said. Sarah conceives and bears a son for Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time about which G-d had spoken.

The Hebrew word pa’kad comes from the root of the Hebrew word to count or to remember. In effect, Sarah was taken into account and remembered. Similarly, on Rosh Hashana all of G-d’s creatures pass before G-d to be examined, setting their fate in accordance with the Divine pattern.

That child, Isaac, who was named in Hebrew Yitzchak, becomes a paradigm for the Jewish people. Remember, that Sarah was menopausal and Abraham was well on in years. Biologically there really was no chance that either of them would be capable of bearing a child! But, just as Isaac’s birth was an act of Divine providence, so too is the continued existence of the Jewish people an act of Divine providence. As we say in the Passover Haggadah, “B’chol dor va’dor om’dim a’leinu l’cha’lotay’nu,”–In every single generation they [our enemies] rise up to destroy us, but because of G-d’s intervention we survive. The great historic nations of the previous eras–the Greeks, the Romans, are gone, the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Chinese have vanished, but the Jews survive. We Jews should really not be here. In every generation we have been at the virtual precipice of destruction, yet we survive-––simply because of the Almighty’s’s intervention; just as G-d intervened to insure the existence of our forefather Yitzchak.

The child is called Yitzchak, which really means to laugh. It is a tough name to give to a child. It is as if a father would name his child “Big Joke.” But Abraham understood that while the world would regard Isaac’s birth and continued existence with great scepticism, Abraham will prove them all wrong––and the “big joke” will be on them!

In Genesis 21:9, Sarah sees the son of Hagar, Ishmael, mitzachek–mocking or “making sport” of her son Yitzchak. She demands that Abraham expel the handmaiden Hagar and her son, so that Ishmael will not inherit with her son Isaac.

According to the commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Sarah had hoped that she would be able to overcome the Hamitic nature of Ishmael in the child which he would inherit from his mother Hagar, but she was mistaken. In fact, our commentators say that the word mitzachek, mocking or making sport, actually implies that Ishmael attempted to sexually molest Isaac.

Therefore, it was not just a benign case of two little boys who could not play nicely together that drove Sarah to insist that the child Ishmael be expelled. Nevertheless, Abraham being the great, open-hearted, and generous “welcomer” of guests, was heartbroken at the thought of sending away his wife and child. Only the direct dictate of G-d, compelled him to heed the instructions of his wife Sarah.

Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael to the barren desert of Baersheva, giving Hagar only a few pieces of bread and a small vessel of water-––the equivalent of a death sentence by starvation and dehydration. When the water comes to an end, Hagar casts the lad (who, according to tradition was either 17 or 27 years old), under one of the shrubs. Based on scriptures’ description that Hagar set herself apart from Ishmael so she should not see the death of her child, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary, takes Hagar to task for her cruel actions. The Torah tells us that as Hagar sat opposite, but quite a distance away from Ishamel, she lifted up her voice and wept. Asks Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: How can a mother cast away a child who is dying of thirst? Should she not have held him in her arms, and kept him cool, even if it was painful for her to witness his death? With great insight Rabbi Hirsch notes that “In truly humane people the feelings of duty master the strongest emotions, make one forget one’s own painful feelings and give helpful assistance even if one can do no more than give comfort of one’s participating presence.”

Miraculously, Hagar and Ishmael are saved by an angel, who shows Hagar that there is an oasis of water nearby. Hagar was so overwhelmed by her grief that she obviously didn’t make even the slightest effort to try to find nourishment for herself or the child, even though it was clearly within reach.

In Genesis 21:17, G-d hears the cry of the child. The Angel of G-d calls out to Hagar and says to her: “What is the matter Hagar, do not be afraid, for G-d has heard the voice of the lad there where he is.” Let us pay particular attention to the phrase, “There where he is” “Ba’asher hu sham.”

Shimon Apisdorf, in his wonderfully enlightening and engaging manual, The Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur Survival Kit, states that it was clear and apparent that Ishmael was fated for evil. Even as a young boy, Ishmael was already an assaulter–a potential cold-blooded murderer. Of course, G-d knew that Ishmael and his descendants would be bitter oppressors of the Jewish people in the future. So, if G-d knew Ishmael’s evil past and his potential evil future, why did G-d save Ishmael? The reason, says Apisdorf, lies in the phrase: “Ba’asher hu sham.” At that very moment that Ishmael was being judged, he was not yet guilty. He might be guilty in the future, but right then and there he could not be considered guilty.

Apisdorf points out that the favorable judgment of Ishamel, which is read on Rosh Hashana, should give us great hope and promise for ourselves. Yes, G-d surely knows our future, but He chooses not to take it into account. In fact, G-d doesn’t even take our past into account. Therefore, writes Apisdorf, all we have to do to merit a favorable decree, is to simply get our act together for one day….. What a bargain, future doesn’t count, past is irrelevant, we will only be judged according to who we are, and how we act on the day of Rosh Hashana itself!

Surely, this is a most hopeful and optimistic message. On Rosh Hashana, G-d judges us-––sounds ominous doesn’t it? But at the same time, G-d does “somersaults” to find every possible reason to judge us favorably.

Consequently, it is absolutely vital, that when G-d looks at us on Rosh Hashana, “Ba’asher hu sham” ––-to see where we are at that very moment, we must be certain that we deserve the favorable judgment and that we want to be blessed and inscribed in the Book of Life.

SHANAH TOVAH. May you and all of your loved ones be inscribed for a healthy, happy and peaceful New Year.

May you be blessed.