Sarah and Abraham make their spiritual journey together. A careful reading of the Torah text reveals to us that G-d never speaks to Abraham when Sarah is not part of his life. So it’s no wonder that not only Sarah dies in our weekly Torah portion, called, ironically, “Sarah’s Life”, but Abraham as well, as is said elsewhere – “the faithful and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they did not part ” (2 Samuel 1:23). And so it is said:
And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre… (Genesis 25:8-9)
It’s seemingly, simple: an old man, 175 years old, passes away, and his two sons come to bury him in the place he bought to be buried, next to his wife. What’s the big deal?
We might want to start with the fact that 38 years have gone by since Sarah died, not a short time. And Abraham meanwhile married again a woman named Ketura, who some say is Hagar, and they had more sons and daughters. It was totally plausible that he would ask to be buried next to his new wife. It was possible that his new children would fight for some rights. Still, the commentators draw our attention to the fact that Abraham died at a “good ripe age”. What caused this?
Rashi says with reference to the next verse: “From here we learn that Yishmael repented, letting Yitzchak(’s name) come before him, and this is the good old age told about Abraham. And the midrash says about the order of this verse, first Yitzchak, then Ishmael: here the son of the maidservant gives honor to the son of the “1st lady”.
To understand the magnitude of the moment, and if you allow me, also to offer a connection to our present day, let’s go back…
“And Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar” (Genesis 16:1). Again and again the text repeats and emphasizes: Shari, later Sarah, is Abraham’s wife, while Hagar is a maidservant. An Egyptian. The effects of the television series and images sad use in recent demonstrations in Israel, stand between us and understanding what a “maidservant” was back then. The midrash tells us that when Abraham and Sarah were in Egypt, Pharaoh saw their greatness and thought that the best thing he can do for his daughter, was to send her to join their family, with all that implies, household help, bearing children and learning their wisdom, lifestyle and values. Like other maidservants in the Torah, for example, Bilha (Rachel’s maidservant) and Zilpa (Leah’s maidservant) who joined Jacob’s family, with no mention of their past nationality, this too could have been the case with Hagar. But then, Hagar, throughout the text, for all the years in Abraham and Sarah’s home, is known as “Hagar, the Egyptian”.
The cultural differences, some of them irreconcilable, were very clear to Sarah, but not so to Abraham, especially after his son, Ishmael, was born. Abraham, “the first monotheist”, wanted to publicize the belief in the One Gd. When the Almighty finally reveals to him that he will have a son with Sarah as well, Abraham laughs and says, ““Oh, if only Ishmael might live before You!” (17:18). In modern language, it’s as if he said, ‘I already have a son! I’d really hate complicating things now with me having another child, and with Sarah? We gave up already! And look, there’s Ishmael, who will live – and walk – before you like me. He will teach the world the belief in one God! La Illa I’la Allah!
God really has to insist – ‘I heard you Abraham, He says, yes, there is no doubt that Ishmael has a very honorable place on the world stage, “But Sara your wife shall bear you a son indeed; and you will call his name Yitzchak: and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him” (17:19).
Ishmael also receives countless gifts: “And as for Ishmael I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation” (17:20).
But, what special covenant is reserved for the son of Abraham and Sarah? There are two differences between the inheritance of Yitzchak and Ishmael: for Ishmael, his mother, the Egyptian, takes for him an Egyptian wife (21:21), connecting him back to the place and nation from which she came, and not to the family of Abraham, the righteous, the benevolent, the believer, who treated her as if she’s a wife to him. While for Yitzchak – Abraham makes sure to bring his nephew’s daughter, Rebecca.
The second inheritance is – the Land that was promised to Abraham. That’s why Sarah says: “for the son of this maidservant shall not inherent with my son, with Yitzchak” (21:10). When she saw the boys playing, she saw that Ishmael was teasing, “shooting arrows”, trying to take Yitzchak’s share as well, which she protests. Not for that, she tells Avraham, we fled the holocaust in Ur Kasdim, left our family in the good and modern Charan, and wandered back to the Land of our ancestors, the Land of the Hebrews, parts of it taken over by the Canaanites who settled in it while we were away. Ishmael was given another inheritance, a large inheritance, many gifts and the whole world, “fairly divided”. But, this portion of this Land, whatever its exact borders may be, was given to Yitzchak, and from him to Jacob and his sons, the Children of Israel.
That is why this moment, when Yitzchak and Ishmael come to bury our forefather Abraham in the Land of Israel, is so critical. “Yitzhak and Ishmael”, in that order, although Ishmael is Abraham’s firstborn. Because in matters of the rest of the world, Ishmael – in peaceful ways – can and even should spread the belief in the one God that he learned from his father. But in matters of the Land of Israel, Yitzchak takes precedence. This is the teshuva – repentance – that Ishmael does. When he accepts this arrangement, putting Yitzchak before him on their journey to the Cave of the Patriarchs, they can come together, without concerns, to pay their last respects to their common father.
And how does all this correspond with our current situation?
According to Rav Sherki, the attitude towards Jews / Israelites in Islam is ambivalent: there is admiration along with contempt. The contempt is directed towards what they call “al-Yahud”, the exiled, oppressed and persecuted Jews, as they were known in the days of Muhammad. And the admiration is directed towards another part of our identity – what they call Banu Isra’il, “the Children of Israel”, the Biblical Israelites who come to the land, conquer it and live an active, unabashed, productive life, contributing to it and the world, while being supported by their Muslim family members.
When this dilemma is presented to Muslims, according to Rabbi Sherki, they say that we are – still – the diasporic “Al-Yahud”, and not “Banu Isra’il”, the proud, rooted, strong Israelite people of the Land. We hear them call “Itbah al-Yahud” and are shocked to the depths of our souls, and rightfully so, especially when the call is accompanied by a knife and/or hot ammunition. Is it possible that part of the purpose of the war that was imposed on us is to make it clear – to them and to ourselves – that we are Israelites, not the Yahud of old? Maybe – when each of us understands and accepts their place and position in the world, perhaps, from this, we can achieve reconciliation between the nations.
May the sons of Yitzchak and Ishmael live in their father’s land in peace.