“The Judgment of Ishmael, and its Contemporary Implications for all of G-d’s Creatures”
(Updated and revised from Rosh Hashana 5761-2000)


Because of Rosh Hashana, instead of commenting on the scheduled Shabbat parasha, Nitzavim, we will comment on the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana, found in Genesis 21, which focuses on the birth of Isaac.

The Torah commentators offer a host of interesting reasons explaining the relevance of this particular portion to Rosh Hashana. The Talmud, in Rosh Hashana 10b, states: “On the new year, Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah were remembered,” meaning that G-d remembered them, and these barren women became pregnant. Genesis 21:1, reads, וַהשׁם פָּקַד אֶת שָׂרָה, כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמָר , 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 פָּקַדpa’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 plan.

The child who was born, Isaac, who was named in Hebrew Yitzchak, becomes a paradigm for the Jewish people. Remember, that Sarah had been menopausal and Abraham too was well on in years. Biologically, there really was no hope that they 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, שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ ,–“In every generation they [our enemies] rise up to destroy us, but the Al-mighty rescues us from their hands.” The great nations of history–the Greeks, the Romans, are gone, the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Chinese have vanished, but the Jews survive. Realistically, the Jewish people should have ceased to exist long ago. After all, in every generation, the Jews have been at the virtual precipice of destruction, yet we survive-––only because of the Al-mighty’s intervention; just as G-d had intervened to ensure the existence of our forefather Yitzchak.

Abraham and Sarah’s child is called Yitzchak, which literally means to laugh. It is an odd and challenging name to give 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 skepticism, Abraham and Isaac will prove them all wrong––and the “big joke” will be on them!

In Genesis 21:9, Sarah sees the son of Hagar, Ishmael, מְצַחֵקmitzachek–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 famed commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Sarah had hoped that because he was fathered by Abraham, Ishmael would be able to overcome the Hamitic nature that he had inherited 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 indeed acted out on that base nature, and 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 Ishmael be expelled. Nevertheless, Abraham, 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 Beersheba, giving Hagar only a few pieces of bread and a small vessel of water-––the equivalent of a death sentence by thirst and starvation. When there is no more water, Hagar casts the lad (who, according to tradition was either 17 or 27 years old), under one of the shrubs. Based on scriptures’ description, Hagar set herself apart from Ishmael so she would not see the death of her child. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary takes Hagar to task for distancing herself from her stricken son. The Torah tells us that as Hagar sat opposite, but quite a distance away from Ishmael, she lifted up her voice and wept. Asks Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: How could 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 pain? 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. Apparently, Hagar was so overwhelmed by grief that she didn’t even make 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, בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם “there where he is.”

Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, in his wonderfully enlightening and engaging manual, The Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur Survival Kit, states that it was clear and apparent as Ishmael grew older he would be fated for doing 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 Rabbi Apisdorf, lies in the phrase: “Ba’asher hu sham,”–there where he is. At that very moment that Ishmael was being judged, he was not yet guilty. He might become guilty in the future, but at that very moment he could not be considered culpable.

Rabbi Apisdorf points out that the favorable judgment of Ishmael, which is read on Rosh Hashana, should be a source of great encouragement and promise for every Jew. 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 when one seeks forgiveness. Therefore, writes Rabbi Apisdorf, to merit a favorable decree, all we need to do, is to simply get our act together for one single day…. What a bargain: the future doesn’t count, the 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 merit His favorable judgment and that we deserve 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.

Rosh Hashana 5780 is observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 29th, 30th and October 1st, 2019. The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed next Wednesday, October 2nd from dawn until nightfall.