One of the more enigmatic figures in the Torah is Abraham’s son, Ishmael. Ishmael is born to Abraham from his maidservant, Hagar, after Abraham and Sarah try unsuccessfully to bear children. Trouble begins even before Ishmael is born. Hagar begins to feel and act superior to Sarah and Sarah has her evicted. An angel tells her to return to Sarah and to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. He tells Hagar that she will bear Abraham a son who will be [Bereishit 16:12] “a wild man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him”. Hagar returns to Sarah and she gives birth to Ishmael. Eventually, Sarah bears Abraham a son, Isaac, who becomes his true heir. To emphasize Isaac’s authority, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael [Bereishit 25:6] “away from Isaac, his son, eastward, to the land of the east”, most likely to Aram, Abraham’s birthplace. When Abraham dies, Ishmael returns from the land of the east [Bereishit 25:9]: “[Abraham’s] sons, Isaac and Ishmael, buried him in the cave of Machpela”. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra [16b] makes a keen observation. Noting that the Torah mentions Isaac before Ishmael, even though Ishmael was Abraham’s oldest son, the Talmud explains that from here we can learn that Ishmael repented from his evil ways and as a result yielded precedence to Isaac. The question is: From what did Ishmael repent? Where is it written that he ever did anything illegal?
The Torah has very little to say about Ishmael. In fact, it allocates exactly one verse to describe his behaviour [Bereishit 21:9]: “Sarah saw the son whom Hagar, the Egyptian, had borne to Abraham playing (metzachek)”. Our sages in the Midrash interpret Ishmael’s playing as far less benign than Candy Crush or varsity football. They assert that he was committing the trifecta of sins that a person must never commit, even if his life is in danger: idolatry, murder, and adultery. According to our sages, Ishmael is the evil incarnate. The problem is that this simply is not the simple meaning of the verse. In the very next verse, Sarah tells Abraham [Bereishit 21:10] “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son, Isaac.” Noting that the subject of Sarah’s ire is once again Hagar – Ishmael’s name is not even mentioned – it seems clear that Hagar is once again voicing her superiority over Sarah, asserting that her son, who is Abraham’s oldest son, is his true heir. Sarah tells Abraham to evict Hagar along with her son. Ishmael is collateral damage. Why, then, do our sages in the Midrash paint Ishmael in such brutal strokes?
Ishmael is not the only person in Abraham’s household to be accused of committing idolatry, murder, and adultery. Abraham’s grandson, Esav, merits the same accusation. The Torah tells us that Esav was an outdoorsman who would hunt for his food. One day, he returned from the field [Bereishit 25:29] “and he was tired”. Our sages in the Midrash attribute Esav’s fatigue to his having committed idolatry, murder, and adultery. But while Ishmael and Esav are accused of committing similar crimes, their lives follow very different trajectories. While according to the Talmud mentioned above, Ishmael repented, as shown by his giving precedence to his brother, Isaac, at Abraham’s funeral, Esav remained recalcitrant to the end. When his father, Isaac, dies, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 35:29] “He was buried by his sons, Esav and Jacob”. Esav did not give the righteous Jacob his due respect, clearly displaying that he did not share the values held by Isaac and Jacob.
With all due respect, the Talmud’s proof of Ishmael’s contrition and Esav’s continued defiance contains a gaping logical hole. Ishmael was the son of a maidservant while Isaac was the son of Sarah, Abraham’s full-fledged wife. Isaac, while younger than Ishmael, had an equally strong claim to serve as Abraham’s heir. On the other hand, both Esav and Jacob were born from Isaac’s wife, Rebecca. No matter how pious Jacob might have been, he was not Isaac’s first-born. There was no impetus for Esav to yield precedence to Jacob.
To find a way ahead, we return to Ishmael’s “playing”. Ishmael was not the only person in his household who played around. Abraham and Sarah joined in the fun as well. When G-d tells Abraham that he will one day father a son with Sarah, the Torah describes how [Bereishit 17:17] “Abraham fell on his face and laughed (va’yitzchak)”. Later on, when Sarah overhears angels informing Abraham that she will soon be bearing him a child [Bereishit 18:12] “Sarah laughed to herself”. While G-d does not react at all to Abraham’s laughter, He scolds Sarah for her outburst. How can two people laugh and yet only one of them is taken to task? The answer lies in the context: Abraham “fell on his face” laughing, unembarrassed to show his great joy. Sarah “laughed to herself”, stifling a grin of disbelief. I suggest that we can better understand Ishmael’s sinful play and subsequent repentance if we look at it in its own context. Rabbi Alex Klein, a contemporary Israeli rabbi, suggests that Ishmael was not completely wicked nor was he completely evil. Rabbi Klein brings a fascinating Midrash in Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer : “Abraham went to see Ishmael his son, having sworn to Sarah that he would not descend from the camel in the place where Ishmael dwelt.
He arrived there at midday and found there the wife of Ishmael. He said to her: Where is Ishmael? She said to him: He has gone with his mother to fetch the fruit of the palms from the wilderness. He said to her: Give me a little bread and a little water, for my soul is faint after the journey in the desert. She said to him: I have neither bread nor water. He said to her: When Ishmael comes home tell him this story, and say to him: A certain old man came from the land of Canaan to see you, and he said, Exchange the threshold of thy house, for it is not good for you. When Ishmael came home, his wife told him the story… Ishmael understood and so his mother took for him a wife from her father’s house, and her name was Fatimah. Again after three years Abraham went to see his son Ishmael… He came there at midday, and found there Ishmael’s wife. He said to her: Where is Ishmael? She replied to him: He has gone with his mother to feed the camels in the desert. He said to her: Give me a little bread and water, for my soul is faint after the journey of the desert. She fetched it and gave it to him. Abraham arose and prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He, for his son, and thereupon Ishmael’s house was filled with all good things of the various blessings. When Ishmael came home, his wife told him what had happened, and Ishmael knew that his father’s love was still extended to him”. Ishmael was not an exceptional person, nor did Abraham expect him to be one. All that Abraham expected from him was to act like his son, to extend basic kindness by giving water to a thirsty stranger. Like Esav, Ishmael was pruned from the tree that would become the nation of Israel. Ishmael, on his own, was a fine person. Nevertheless, when compared to Isaac, Ishmael ranks lower on the scale of holiness and in comparison could be considered evil. The tragedy of Ishmael, according to Rabbi Klein, was that Ismael was the son of Abraham and the brother of Isaac. He was not in their league – he was varsity. And yet at the same time, Ishmael can be called “righteous” only when he stands together with Isaac.
Two months ago marked the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords, in which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain officially normalized relations with Israel. After more than 70 years of hostilities, descendants of Abraham’s two children, Isaac and Ishmael, ended their feud. I am not naïve: I do not believe that peace was spawned by brotherly love. The cessation of hostilities is a result of a looming Iranian threat, a strong Israeli Army and a booming Israeli economy. Emirati officials I have spoken with are overtly pragmatic. They will support any country that furthers their security and their strengthens their economy, be it the U.S, Israel, or even China. Still, the moment that Ishmael gives Isaac his due, he becomes a righteous penitent, and so he must – and will – be treated.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.
 See Bechor Shor ad loc.
 While Esav had sold his title of first-born (bechorah) to Jacob, the sale was made under extenuating circumstances and Esav would have been within his rights to claim that the sale was null and void.
 Fatima was the daughter of Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
 Within a few months, Sudan and Morocco joined the accords.