C’mon, I Was Only Playing….

Generally speaking, I have never been one to subscribe to stereotypes. However, if we put aside political correctness and are honest with ourselves, I think we can all agree that many stereotypes are in some way rooted in truth. The problem arises when that original kernel of truth is hatefully distorted and blindly extrapolated to include every individual in every context, and it is certainly not my intention to do so here.

For example, it’s a stereotype that the Jews control the media. While obviously untrue, that stereotype began for a reason. During the early years of Hollywood, Jews did in fact own most movie production companies. African Americans have never been accused of trying to forcibly convert other peoples under the threat of death and the Amish have never been accused of being materialistic and greedy. No need for a sociological explanation of stereotypes, why they began and statistical evidence to back it up. You can all think of examples and you get the point.

Two disclaimers before continuing; first, I did not write the Book, I only read it. Second, anything that is found to be insensitive, offensive or G-D forbid causes negative association towards even a single word contained in the Torah or towards the great scholars who help us to understand it, should be clearly attributed to myself and properly understood as nothing more than my own misinterpretation and ignorance.

וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה הִנָּךְ הָרָה וְיֹלַדְתְּ בֵּן וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ יִשְׁמָעֵאל כִּי שָׁמַע יְהֹוָה אֶל עָנְיֵךְ. וְהוּא יִהְיֶה פֶּרֶא אָדָם יָדוֹ בַכֹּל וְיַד כֹּל בּוֹ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל אֶחָיו יִשְׁכֹּן


And the angel of the Lord said to her (Hagar), “Behold, you will conceive and bear a son, and you shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard your affliction. And he will be a wild ass of a man; his hand will be upon all, and everyone’s hand upon him, and in the face of all his brothers he will dwell.” (Lech Lecha 16:11-12)

In the two weekly Torah portions we have read since my last post, as well as in this week’s portion, we learn a lot about the nature and personalities of different Biblical figures. We also see how the character traits exhibited by nations’ forefathers are strikingly similar to those of their respective descendants. In some cases this is presented as prophetic announcements, in others it is stated clearly and yet in other cases it is only implied, left to the interpretation of future scholars.

The title of this post refers to a previous weeks’ Torah reading in which Avraham’s concubine is informed that she will give birth to a child, who will become the father of an entire nation. She is further told of certain character traits that will be exhibited by both that child as well as his descendants.

This is not to say that Yishmael lacked free will. Additionally, there are sources that attribute part of the blame for his behavior on Avraham his father. Whereas Yitzchak was inclined to stay in the “tent” and enjoyed quiet introspection and learning, Yishmael enjoyed the desert and was a skilled hunter with the bow and arrow. In no way did this make him a bad person. In fact, Avraham loved him and was very pained by his unruly behavior. As every parent knows, each child, almost from birth has different likes, skills and inclinations. Each has unique qualities that must be nurtured and negative ones that must be dissuaded.  Avraham, the paradigm of kindness, while recognizing his son’s great potential, failed to recognize his need for greater discipline.

וַתֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָהָם גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת בְּנָהּ כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת עִם בְּנִי עִם יִצְחָק


And (Sarah) said to Abraham, “Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.” (Vayeira 21:9-10)

Unfortunately, we are now embroiled in another war to try to restore security to residents of Southern Israel who have lived under constant threat of missile attack since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. For the better part of a decade there has been a cycle of terrorist missile offensives followed predictably by either the unilateral declaration of or international imposition of an obviously farcical ceasefire.

During the last week of October, Southern Israel was subjected to a missile offensive culminating in a 24 hour period of over 75 missile strikes. Fearing a strong Israeli retaliation, Hamas (which, ironically, in Hebrew translates as “violence”) accepted a brokered ceasefire. This past Sunday began yet another round of intense missile fire. In an attempt to push the absolute limits without suffering the consequences, a unilateral ceasefire was then declared following the missile barrage. This time the terrorists pushed the limits of what is acceptable a bit too far – even for a people who has come to expect and accept unprovoked violence of the course of millennia.

ויוצאים בשדה ונוטל קשתו ויורה בו חצים, ואמר הלא משחק אני


And they would go out to the field, and he would take his bow and shoot arrows at him, and would say “I am only playing.” (Rashi on Vayeira 21:9)

This cynical pattern of attack and ceasefire has been played out far longer than most people realize. In fact, Yishmael, recognized by both Muslims and Jews as the father of the Arab nation employed this very tactic against his half-brother, Yitzchak, recognized by both religions as father of the Jewish nation. We learn that Avraham was forced to send his son Yishmael far away from home. Why? His other son, Yitzchak was unable to live in peace. Rashi, one of the greatest interpreters of the Torah, put into writing some 800 years ago, what until that point had been maintained through earlier, less accessible sources; Yishmael, in arguing over who would inherit what portion of their fathers land, would shoot arrows at Yitzchak. Yishmael would then attribute his violent behavior toward his brother as “just playing.”

The conflict over inheritance was further settled in last week’s Torah portion. Aside from having to expel Yishmael due to his violent tendencies along with his Egyptian mother, we learn that Avraham clarified the issue of inheritance while still alive. Yitzchak was given his father’s land, while Yishmael was given other “gifts” and sent to establish himself east of the Land of Israel. If he had no claim to the land while his father was yet alive, how could he after his death? Assuming the other side truly believes in their descent from Avraham and Yishmael, as they claim, there is no Biblical basis for a Palestinian right of return. Again, I didn’t write the Book, I only read it.

וַיִּתֵּן אַבְרָהָם אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ לְיִצְחָק. וְלִבְנֵי הַפִּילַגְשִׁים אֲשֶׁר לְאַבְרָהָם נָתַן אַבְרָהָם מַתָּנֹת וַיְשַׁלְּחֵם מֵעַל יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ בְּעוֹדֶנּוּ חַי קֵדְמָה אֶל אֶרֶץ קֶדֶם


And Abraham gave all that he possessed to Isaac. And to the sons of Abraham’s concubines, Abraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from his son Isaac while he [Abraham] was still alive, eastward to the land of the East.  (Chayei Sarah 25:5-6)

Next week: Yaakov, his brother Esav and international hypocrisy

About the Author
Mike Kavitsky made aliya from the United States in 2005. He is married and has four small children.