“A Father and a Leader” Parashat Chaye Sarah 5776

My son Amichai made a most interesting comment last Shabbat. He noted that after the Akeida Avraham stops acting like a forefather and begins acting like a father. There is much truth in this statement. Avraham’s life after the Akeida consists of two family-related episodes: finding a place to bury his wife, Sarah, and finding a wife for his son, Yitzchak. After completing these two missions Avraham dies [Bereishit 25:8-9]: “Avraham expired and died in a good old age (seva tova), old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people. Yitzchak and Yishmael his sons buried him in the Cave of Machpelah”. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra [16b] notes the order of precedence –Yitzchak and then Yishmael buried Avraham. The Talmud learns from this that Yishmael let Yitzchak take the lead even though he, Yishmael, was the oldest son. From his deference it can be learned that Yishmael repented before he died[1]. Rashi brings this section of Talmud verbatim.

After Avraham is buried the Torah discusses the lineage of Yishmael, and then it is Yishmael’s turn to exit the stage [Bereishit 25:17]: “These are the years of the life of Yishmael: one hundred and thirty seven years; he expired and died and was gathered to his people”. Notice that the word “expired” – “va’yigva” – is used both in description of the death of Yishmael and in the description of the death of Avraham. The same Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra from the previous paragraph teaches that [1] the word “expired” is only used in association with a righteous person[2], and ergo [2] Yishmael died a righteous person. Again Rashi brings this section of Talmud verbatim. Why must Rashi do this? He has already told us that Yishmael repented before he died. Does he have to make the same point twice? Why is it so important to Rashi that Yishmael repents before his death?

Rav Mordechai Yaffe, writing in the “Levush Ha’Ora”, a commentary on Rashi, suggests that Yishmael’s repentance is not important as far as Yishmael is concerned, but it is critical as far as Avraham is concerned. At the Covenant of the Parts (Brit bein Ha’Betarim) Hashem tells Avraham that his children will be “strangers in a strange land” where they shall serve as slaves for four hundred years, after which [Bereishit 16:14] “they will go forth with great wealth”. Avraham is concerned, and wants to know if he is going to go into exile himself. Hashem consoles him, telling him [Bereishit 16:15] “[Y]ou will come to your forefathers in peace; you will be buried in a good old age”. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra – the same Talmud we have already quoted twice – teaches that Yishmael’s repentance was the fulfilment of the “good old age” that Hashem had promised Avraham. It was crucial that Hashem make good on this promise because this would be the best indicator that He would make good on the other promises He made at the Covenant of the Parts, specifically the promise that Avraham’s descendants would leave Egypt “with great wealth”. If Avraham were to have died with Yishmael living as a masked bandit somewhere in the Sinai Desert, Hashem’s credibility would have taken a serious hit.

If we take the explanation of the Levush Ha’Ora one more step, we can gain some incredible insight. Consider this statement: Yishmael’s repentance is not important as far as Yishmael is concerned, or even as far as Avraham is concerned. It is important as far as you and I are concerned. Why did Hashem choose Avraham? Some might say that it has to do with the stories we all read about Avraham breaking his father’s idols, but these stories do not appear in the Torah. They are relegated to the Midrash. Some might answer that it wasn’t Hashem that chose Avraham, but, rather, it was Avraham who chose Hashem. This idea, while admittedly appealing, is explicitly contradicted by the first verse in Parashat Lech Lecha [Bereishit 13:1] in which it is Hashem who tells Avraham to “leave your land”. The Torah actually answers our question. When Hashem decides to tell Avraham about the impending destruction of Sodom, He says [Bereishit 18:19] “I love [Avraham] because he commands his sons and his household after him that they should keep the way of Hashem to perform righteousness and justice”. The greatness of Avraham was that he believed that it was critical that he pass on his beliefs and his tradition to his children[3]. Only this kind of person could father a nation.

What is the difference between a forefather and a national leader? A national leader is a leader first and a father second. The best example of this phenomenon is Moshe Rabbeinu. Other than mentioning their existence, the Torah says nothing about Moshe’s two sons. They do not succeed him after his death. When Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, comes to visit him along with his wife and sons, the Torah refers his children as [Shemot 18:3] “her sons”. The Jerusalem Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [11:5] teaches that Moshe’s grandson, Yehonatan, served as a pagan priest, a true source of nachas. Rav Binyamin Sofer, writing in the K’tav Sofer, asserts that Moshe’s children turned out the way they did because Moshe had no time to raise them. In Moshe’s eyes, the managing of the nation took precedence over the managing of his own household. Am Yisrael gained at the benefit of Moshe’s sons.

This kind of zero-sum game would never cut the mustard with Avraham. Avraham was a father first and a leader second. Avraham would never willingly allow his children to “go off the derech”, no matter what the reason He would give every ounce of his strength “that they should keep the way of Hashem to perform righteousness and justice”. But unfortunately it’s not always that simple. I like to say that when a person raises a child he should point him in the direction in which he wants him to go, and then he can be sure that the child will head off in that general direction, plus or minus one hundred and eighty degrees. There is a limit to how far we can push our children. They will end up making their own decisions and we can only sit back and watch, praying that they “do the right thing”. This is what happened with Yishmael. Try as Avraham might, Yishmael “marched to his own drummer”. When this became detrimental to Yitzchak, Avraham had no other choice but to throw Yishmael out of his home.

The problem is that if Avraham, our forefather, a person for whom education was his entire being, if this same Avraham only had a fifty percent success rate with his own children, what kind of archetype is this? Should we raise our children with the goal of a fifty percent attrition rate? Perhaps this is the reason that Yishmael’s repentance was so important. Or maybe not. One might be led to believe that he, like Avraham, had to succeed with all of his children, and that anything less than complete success is considered failure. I think that the message is slightly different. The first indication that Yishmael has repented occurs only after Avraham’s death. The message is that Avraham worked tirelessly until his dying day to bring Yishmael back into the fold. He never gave up[4]. The message is that when it comes to parenting, it is not the outcome that is the goal, it is the effort. Notice that not only did Yishmael repent, he became righteous. There are no limits how high our children can reach. Sometimes they need a little of our help getting there.

To paraphrase: “We shall be there for them with growing confidence and growing strength, we shall stand by our children, whatever the cost may be… We shall never surrender!”

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya

[1] Yishmael had much to repent for. Before he was born it was prophesized that he would be a wild person. After Yitzchak is born Yishmael is such a bad influence that Avraham throws him out of the house along with his mother, Hagar. Avraham sends them with only one flask of water, making it obvious that he has no intention of them ever making it back alive. Perhaps Avraham was treating Yishmael as if he were a “Ben Sorer u’Moreh” – a Rebellious Child – who is put to death so that he might die while he is still innocent of wrongdoing. See the Mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin [8:5].

[2] See the Talmud ad loc to understand how the word “expire” could be used in association with Noach’s flood, in which the people who were killed were anything but righteous.

[3] See our shiur on Parashat Lech Lecha of this year.

[4] Throwing Yishmael out of his home was an example of tough love.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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