Yishmael the Great

My mother’s uncle, Andre, was shot in the back by his trusted Arab worker.  It was the day of my first cousin, Stephan’s bris.   Everyone was at the bris, except Uncle Andre, who had to be at work to manage the family supermarket. They couldn’t close it on Monday market day!  The year was 1956, in Orleansville, Algeria. We had lived for centuries in peace with our Arab neighbours, working alongside them, going to school with them. Suddenly, they rose up and attacked. Following Andre’s coldblooded murder, the family fled Algeria to France. Half a century later, most of them fled France to Israel, some for ideological reasons, others to escape rising Arab anti-Semitism. But today, they find themselves in the Jewish homeland asking themselves, ‘Is there nowhere in the world we are safe from our Arab cousins?’  Yes, our Arab cousins. What’s truly bothered me all these years is: How could someone kill their own cousin? People don’t kill family. It makes no sense.

In Parshat Lech Lecha, Avram and Sarai find themselves childless after many years of marriage.  Sarai “had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar.  And Sarai said to Avram: Hashem has restrained me from bearing; consort with my maidservant, perhaps I will be built up through her. And Avram heeded the voice of Sarai.”

So Avram takes Hagar as his wife. Hagar conceives and “her mistress was lowered in her esteem”.  As Rashi teaches, she didn’t think Sarah was so great anymore; throughout all these years she hadn’t conceived, while she was able to conceive right away.  Sarai is outraged and Avram tells her do to her as she sees fit.  Sarai deals harshly with her and she leaves.  Wandering in the wilderness, she encounters an angel, who declares, “Return to your mistress and submit yourself to her.  You are hereby pregnant and will give birth to a son.  You shall call his name Yishmael, for Hashem has heard your prayer.”

The Midrash teaches there were four people who were named by Hashem before birth. Yitzchak was the grandfather of the twelve tribes, founder of the Jewish people; King Shlomo built the Beit Hamikdash (Temple); Yosheyahu was a forerunner of the future miracle of gathering in the exiles.  It was during his time some of the Ten Tribes returned to Israel; and here Yishmael, was given the potential to shine and rise to greatness. In addition, he was given the name Yishmael, which has G-d’s name in it!  Our Sages tell us that he had the power and blessing of Hashem to help him grow to incredible spiritual heights.  So what went wrong?

When G-d invests Himself in your life, you are imbued with limitless potential.  But with great power comes great responsibility.  Yishmael himself spent most of his life in pursuit of the wrong things in life.  But our Sages point to the fact that Avraham was buried by both his sons and teach that at the end of his life, Yishmael did teshuvah and began channelling his enormous potential towards the positive.  He became such a hero that for many centuries Yishmael was a popular Jewish name used by layman and Talmudic sages alike.  Indeed, each morning, we begin our prayers with a teaching of Rabbi Yishmael.

The Arab nations descend from Yishmael.  At times in history, the Muslim/Arab world has been a great force for the good.  Our medieval poets and philosophers were greatly influenced by their cultural and scientific achievements.  But even that Golden Age was wiped out by the ISIS of the time, the Almohads from North Africa. Yishmael’s immense potential drove itself into the Dark Age. Incidentally, at that point we Jews stopped naming our children Yishmael.

Today history is repeating itself.  Yishmael stands at the crossroads.  Will they use their incredible potential to become world leaders or will they descend into the barbarism of the Middle Ages?  The Palestinian people, in particular, are some of the most intelligent, educated Arabs in the Middle East.  Will they choose to live peacefully side-by-side with us, or channel their Divine power to street-rage, in an effort to kill their cousins, the descendants of Yitzchak?

I never understood how a “cousin” could kill my great uncle.   I never understood the Arab violence and terror in Israel.  Cousins protect each other.  Cousins don’t stab you in the back.   Cousins welcome you with open arms when you say you are coming home to the Holy Land.  It is one thing to have the potential to do good; it is quite another thing to act on it.  Yishmael and his descendants have the ability to do wonderful things.  But it will take incredible Arabs with courage to stand up to the thugs who are abusing their potential.

There is hope.  I’d like to conclude by sharing with you a post from Noha, a classmate from my MBA program at the University of Alberta:

Not-So-Dear Islamic Terrorists: It’s because of you I no longer wear my head scarf. It’s because of you Islam is losing its popularity around the world. It’s because of you that people who are called Mohamed change their names now. It’s because of you I can’t listen to an Arabic radio station in public, fearful that it plays the call for prayer and people hear Allaho Akbar and think that I too am a terrorist. It’s because of you that Muslims are not employed, that women are scared, that children hide their religion from their friends so that they are not abandoned. It’s because of you that I am writing this post asking my friends hopelessly to remember that Islam cannot be affiliated with ill minded radicals who are too jealous of life that they tear it from the ones living it. Rather, it’s a religion calling for peace, love and serenity. I stand in solidarity with those who lost their lives today to your unforgivable atrocious act. #JE_Suis_Charlie

I want to thank Noha for encouraging me to publicize her message.  May all the descendants of Yishmael use their Divine power for the good and may we have peace in the Holy Land immediately!

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbanit Batya

About the Author
Rabbanit Batya Friedman is the senior rebbetzin of Hamsptead Suburb Garden Synagogue in London, UK. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Brooklyn College and her MBA from the University of Alberta. She previously served the community in Edmonton, AB Canada.
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