Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, became corrupted and began, at the age of fifteen, to worship idols like the Canaanites around him. When his brother Isaac was born, Ishmael would shoot arrows at him, pretending to play, but putting the boy’s life at grave risk. Sarah, Isaac’s mother and Ishmael’s step-mother, informed Abraham of Ishmael’s degenerate behavior and urged her husband to send Ishmael away.
“But the matter greatly displeased Abraham, concerning his son” (Genesis 21:11). He was aware of his son’s shortcomings, and he knew that Sarah was right that Ishmael would need to be sent away for the sake of Isaac’s safety. Still he was pained, not only because he loved his son in spite of his shortcomings, but because he believed in Ishmael’s potential to do and be better. Years earlier, in this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, when Abraham had been informed that Sarah would give birth to Isaac, and that Isaac would be his spiritual heir, Abraham immediately prayed to God on his first son’s behalf: “Lu Yishmael yichyeh lifanecha/Would that Ishmael will live before you” (Genesis 17:18).
Why is it that upon hearing the news of Isaac’s forthcoming birth, Abraham prays that Ishmael will live? Is there some reason to believe that Isaac’s birth might be related to Ishmael’s death? If we examine Abraham’s request carefully, we see that it is not merely Ishmael’s survival that Abraham is concerned with, but something deeper. He does not simply pray “Lu Yishmael yichyeh/would that Ishmael will live,” but he adds the word “lifanecha.” This term is plainly translated as “before you,” but it literally means “in your face.” As such, what Abraham prays for at this moment is that Ishmael should live at the level of God’s face, the “Pnei Hashem/face of God” that dwells deep within him. He realizes that it will be his son Isaac who will carry his inheritance as the patriarch of the Hebrew nation, and he recognizes the failings of his son Ishmael that render him unfit for this responsibility. Yet he beseeches God to assist his first son in accessing the divine light that is hidden in his “pnimyus/inner core.”
Though Ishmael is unconscious of that light himself, his father perceives it clearly and wants nothing more for his child than that he should find it and reveal it from within him. Indeed, the sages teach that though he struggled with his corrupt tendencies throughout his life, “Ishmael did teshuvah in Abraham’s lifetime” (Bava Basra 16b).
It is our absolute duty to defend ourselves from those who would harm us. There is an explicit mitzvah in the Torah to kill an attacker before he has the ability to kill us or our loved ones. Yet as we fight the battles that must be fought, we must simultaneously pray to Hashem that He should immediately reveal Himself throughout His universe. When He does so, all of His creations will know that they are interconnected fragments of an infinite whole. Then those who have taken up arms will drop them, fall to their knees, and wail for the pain and horror that they have inflicted on themselves and their own global family.