Abraham and Sarah believed in Hagar and Ishmael, but they disregarded their status, with Ishmael even degenerating to appalling crimes * Their behavior prevented Abraham and Sarah from repairing the world, and Abraham was forced to drive them out * The expulsion succeeded: they repented, and returned to Abraham’s family * Israel also believed in the sons of Ishmael, but they abused our trust *A person who refuses to recognize the Jewish character of the state and Israel’s sovereignty over it will have to be expelled, but upon a change of attitude, we will be happy to accept him * Unlike other cultures, Judaism does not impose one idea on all of humanity, rather, patiently refines people, each individual according to his beliefs
For over twenty years, every Rosh Hashana I am called-up to the Torah for “shlishi” (the third aliyah), for the reading of the story Ishmael’s expulsion (from the portion of Vayeira). Every year, my heart aches over the sorrow of Hagar and Ishmael, and the question arises: Wasn’t there any other solution? Every year anew, I am compelled to resolve matters. Before I specify this year’s additional thought, I will summarize what I have written in the past.
At First: Trust and Education
Seeing that God had prevented our matriarch Sarah from giving birth, she graciously decided to give her worthy maid servant to Abraham. This was both an act of kindness towards Abraham, who would merit having a son after so many years, and even more so, towards Hagar her maid servant, providing her the opportunity to come close to the righteous and honored Abraham, and for her children, the prospect of joining the great vision that Sarah and Abraham had founded in the world. It was clear to Sarah that Hagar who until then accepted her leadership submissively and with love would continue acknowledging her seniority, and the child born to her would be educated by Sarah. She hoped that in the merit of her generosity, God would hasten her salvation and grant her a son of her own, who, along with the son of Hagar, would fulfill the great vision they had established in the world while recognizing the seniority of Sarah’s future son – similar to the selection of the Kohanim (priests) to serve in the Holy Temple, as opposed to all other Jews.
However, the moment after Hagar became pregnant, “she looked at her mistress with contempt (Genesis 16:4)”. She stopped treating Sarah as she had in the past, thinking: “The hidden sides of this woman Sarah are not compatible with what she reveals: she shows off as if she is righteous, when she really isn’t; for she hasn’t merited becoming pregnant all these years, while I became pregnant immediately” (Rashi, Genesis 16:4).
Nevertheless, Sarah still believed in Hagar, but tormented and punished her in order to discipline her. Sarah did her utmost in this matter, to the point where, in the opinion of the Ramban and Radak, Sarah over did it. However, our righteous foremother Sarah had hoped that by doing so, Hagar would recognize her place, and everything would return to normal. Hagar, however, refused to accept Sarah’s authority, and fled the house. Only after the angel of God told her: “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her” (Genesis 16:9) – because through Sarah’s actions you are being trained – did Hagar return humbly, accepted Sarah’s authority, and gave birth to Ishmael, raising him on the knees of her master’s – Abraham and Sarah.
But deep in her heart, Hagar was no longer Sarah’s apprentice. Ishmael subconsciously realized this, and after the birth of Isaac, began mocking him. Some commentators say that in contrast to young Isaac who grew up righteously, Ishmael began leaning towards idolatry and incest, while other commentators say he played games with Isaac that endangered his life, thereby revealing his inner desire to murder him, because he hated Isaac for usurping his place. People would say: Take a look at Abraham the Ivri – all his life he’s been preaching about being careful of stealing, illicit relations, and murder, and here his son Ishmael is a wild ass of a man! (Genesis Rabbah 53:11).
The Decision to Expel
It was then that Sarah realized there was no longer any chance that Hagar and Ishmael could be partners in establishing the nation whose destiny was to perfect the world in the Kingdom of God. Hagar’s return was insincere. If Hagar and Ishmael were to remain in their house, Abraham and Sarah’s great vision would perish. “She said to Abraham, “Drive away this slave together with her son. The son of this slave will not share the inheritance with my son Isaac” (Genesis 21:10).This was very difficult for our forefather Abraham. All his life he had lovingly drawn people closer, and now he had to expel his beloved son. “But God said to Abraham, “Do not be troubled because of the boy and your slave. Do everything Sarah tells you. It is through Isaac that you will gain posterity (ibid, 21:12).” So to speak, God even had to tell Abraham that although his son Ishmael would be a great nation, his main mission would continue through Isaac, and he would be considered his successor.
The Expulsion was Painful but Justified
Had Hagar grasped the severity of her behavior towards Sarah, and had Ishmael understood the gravity of his deeds with respect to Abraham’s legacy and towards his brother Isaac, they would have parted in understandingly, for indeed, it was in their best interest to build their future elsewhere. The separation would have occurred naturally and easily, and all the mental anguish would have been alleviated. Apparently, however, even before this, Ishmael had already gone astray, was reckless and sinned, to the point where it was impossible for Abraham to remove him from his home in a dignified manner with gifts, as he had wished. Consequently, Hagar and Ishmael were expelled in disgrace, and even though Abraham had directed them on their way, they got lost in the wilderness, Ishmael fell sick and nearly died of thirst, and only a miracle saved them (see, Exodus Rabbah 1:1).
All this taken into consideration, we find no denunciation of Sarah our matriarch and Abraham our forefather. The proof is that on Rosh Hashana, the day where we are careful not to mention anything negative about Israel, our Sages decreed that the story of Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion be read. In other words, the Heavenly decree to expel the maid servant and her son applies even when it is not pleasant. For the law is the law — Hagar, who denied Sarah’s kindness, and Ishmael, who, while still in the house of Abraham, dared to worship idols, steal, and threaten to murder – must receive their punishment. Indeed, on Rosh Hashana when Israel recognizes its uniqueness and specialness among all the nations, precisely then, they justifiably merit a good year.
Hagar and Ishmael Repented
After Hagar and Ishmael were expelled, it seemed as if Sarah had erred in her undue belief in Hagar, by giving her Abraham as a wife. But God, who governs the world, guards the steps of his righteous followers so that no mishaps occur through them, because since their intentions are good, in the end, they will be fulfilled. Specifically after they were expelled and made to suffer, Hagar and Ishmael realized their sin and repented. Hagar recognized Sarah’s preeminence, connected herself to the legacy of Abraham, no longer wandered after idolatry, nor had relations with anyone other than Abraham. For that, her that name was changed to Keturah (Zohar, Vol. 1, 133:2). Even Ishmael repented, acknowledging Isaac as Abraham’s main successor, and God’s promise to Abraham: “And you… will be buried at a good old age” (Genesis 15:15), was fulfilled, seeing his son Ishmael repented (Genesis Rabbah 30:4).
Underscoring Isaac’s Status
Although Hagar and Ishmael repented, as long as Sarah was alive, she opposed their returning home, so that it would be absolutely clear and final that Isaac was Abraham’s successor, and only he possessed the Heavenly destiny to inherit the Land of Israel, and perfect the world in the light of Torah faith and instruction. As time went by, matters became clearer, until matters reached the pinnacle at the binding of Isaac. Immediately after Isaac reached his supreme level, Sarah passed away – her mission in the world having come to an end.
Hagar’s Return to Abraham’s House
The miraculous end of the story of Hagar is that after Abraham ensured the continuation of the dynasty founded by Sarah and himself by sending his servant to find a wife for their son Isaac, Sarah’s very own son, Isaac, completed his mother’s actions by returning Hagar-Ketura to his father, Abraham (Genesis Rabbah 60:14). Keturah merited begetting six additional sons to Abraham, however, they honored Sarah’s legacy, that Isaac would be the sole heir of the Divine vision, and the Holy Land.
Afterwards, Rebecca arrived and entered the tent of Sarah; the candle that had burned from one Sabbath to the next while Sarah was alive, and would burn in the Sanctuary in future times, resumed. The cloud that was attached to Sarah’s tent returned, just as it would attach itself to the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) in the desert, and a blessing was found in the dough (Genesis Rabbah 60:16).
Implication for Our Times
Our situation today is very similar to that of the past. We thought if we acted justly with our Arab neighbors the sons of Ishmael – if we made the land which under their hands was desolate, blossom; if we developed the economy, and their standard of living rose; if we awarded them rights that no Arab has in any Arab country – they would be appreciative. However, the more we contributed to their prosperity – their war against us grew. And even if we attempt to torment them, to defeat them in wars, they accuse us, and unite with our enemies. The only option of remedying the situation is to strengthen the Jewish character of the State, to make clear to all that this land is ours, and no other nation has a part or inheritance in it. Anyone who accepts this lovingly – can live with us here in great dignity, as a ‘ger toshav’ (resident alien). However, towards anyone who does not accept this, and attempts to oust us from our land, we must act with all ethical means at our disposal in order to expel him. Only then, when sitting in another place, will he be able to reflect on all the good we have brought to the sons of Ishmael, and the world. Then the sons of Ishmael will recognize our virtue — that we are the sons of Israel, the receivers of the Torah and inheritors of the land promised to Abraham, and they too will join us in perfecting the world in the Kingdom of God.
Improve the World, and Perfect it Patiently
This year, I continued contemplating that it is impossible for two kings to serve under one crown, and just as every organization has one manager, so too, it is imperative that amongst the nations, there be one nation that conveys the word of God to the world. To this end, it is appropriate for the nation that carries the word of God to have a special status among the nations. This is God’s choosing of Israel.
This choice is reflected in Israel’s nature, a people who wish to better the world. Had Ishmael been the senior brother, he most likely would have murdered Isaac, as was common among various nations, that the rulers murdered their brothers and even their sons, if they threatened their rule (this was always the case in ancient Egypt, and also in later-day Turkey).
It is also reflected in Israel’s approach to the world: Unlike other religions and cultures that wish to convert everyone to their religion and culture, we desire to empower all faiths and cultures by refinement of their beliefs and morals.
Morally superficial people aspire to fix everything instantly with a single idea – democracy, equality, or one religion or another – but Jews understand, in accordance with the Torah, that the world is way more complex and varied, patience is essential, the educational means are immeasurable, and occasionally distancing is required in order to bring closer and rectify.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: http://en.yhb.org.il/