14 Marcheshvan 5774
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Vayeira: A tale of two brothers
by Daniel Pinner
[Dedicated to the memory of two men whose Yahrzeits fall in the coming days: my grandfather, Naftali ben ha-Rav Moshe (Nathan Pinner) z”l, whose 32nd Yahrzeit falls this Shabbat, 15th Marcheshvan; and Rabbi Meir David Kahane Hy”d, whose 22nd Yahrzeit falls on Tuesday, 18th Marcheshvan.]
Last week’s parashah, Lekh Lekha, concluded with Abraham circumcising himself and all the men of his household, including his thirteen-year-old son Yishmael. Parashat Vayeira picks up the narrative three days later (Bava Metzi’a 86a, Bamidbar Rabbah 11:2), when “Hashem appeared to him in the Plains of Mamre, when he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day” (Genesis 18:1).
On this third day after Abraham had circumcised himself, the time when the wound was at its most painful (see Ibn Ezra and Radak to Genesis 34:25), he sat at the entrance to his tent, longing for the opportunity for hachnasat orchim – hospitality for wayfarers.
It was while he was hopefully awaiting this opportunity that “he raised his eyes and he saw, and behold! – three men were standing over him” (Genesis 18:2). These three “men”, whom Abraham did not yet identify as angels, had three different missions to fulfil: one to herald that Sarah would give birth a year hence; one to save Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and one to overturn Sodom and Gomorrah (Targum Yonatan); alternatively, one to herald that Sarah would give birth a year hence; one to save Lot; and one to heal Abraham (Rashi ad.loc., Bava Metzi’a 86b, Derech Eretz 2:2), because one angel can have only one mission.
Sure enough, a year later to the day, Sarah gave birth to Yitzchak.
Now in many ways the birth of Yitzchak followed the same pattern as the birth of Yishmael fourteen years earlier. In both cases the name of the son was decreed before he was yet born (Yishmael’s name in Genesis 16:11, Yitzchak’s name in 17:19). In both cases the name looks to the future: Yishmael (“God will hear”) and Yitzchak (“he will laugh”).
And recording both sons’ births, the Torah uses similar language. The Torah records Yishmael’s birth with the words: “And Hagar bore to Abram a son; and Abram called his son’s name, whom Hagar had born, Yishmael” (Genesis 16:15). And it records Yitzchak’s birth with the words: “Sarah conceived and she bore to Abraham a son in his old age, at the pre-ordained time that God had spoken to him. And Abraham called his son’s name, who was born unto him, whom Sarah had born him, Yitzchak” (21:2-3).
The Talmud (Yerushalmi Berachot 1:6) and the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 45:8 and Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Pis’cha 16 s.v. li hu) offer an intriguing insight, noting that four people were named before they were yet born: Yitzchak, Yishmael, Shlomo (King Solomon), and Yoshiyahu (King Josiah).
An angel announced to Hagar that she would conceive and give birth to a son whom she was to call Yishmael (Genesis 16:11). God Himself told Abraham that his wife would give birth to a son whom he was to call Yitzchak (17:19). When King David instructed his son to build the Holy Temple, he reminisced that God had told him that a son would be born to him, whom he was to name Shlomo (1 Chronicles 22:9). And shortly after King Shlomo’s death and the split of the kingdom, a prophet who castigated Jeroboam (king of Israel who had broken away from the Davidic monarchy) for his idolatry, told him that “a son will be born to the House of David, Yoshiyahu will be his name” (1 Kings 13:2).
The Yerushalmi concludes by saying simply that “this applies to tzaddikim”. The Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael gives more detail: “We find that the names and the deeds of the tzaddikim are revealed to God before they are even formed”.
This is intriguing because of the implication that Yishmael was a tzaddik. And indeed at some stage in his life he was.
Yet later on in Parashat Vayeira we read about Yitzchak’s birth and the aftermath. Sarah saw Yishmael “metzachek” (“jesting”), and subsequently told Abraham to expel Hagar and Yishmael, which Abraham did after God ratified what Sarah had said (Genesis 21:9-12). Does this not seem like a disproportionate response? What does the Torah mean when itsays that Yishmael was “jesting”?
The Ibn Ezra understands it to imply no worse than the usual tomfoolery of any teenager: “‘Jesting’ – because this is how all youths behave; but [Sarah] was jealous because he was bigger than her son”. According to the Radak, Yishmael’s “jesting” meant “mocking Yitzchak for being born to such old people”.
However according to the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 53:11, Sh’mot Rabbah 1:1) “jesting” implies something far more sinister: sexual immorality, idolatry, and murder. At his tender age (15 years old, according to Tanhuma, Sh’mot 1), Yishmael was already raping unmarried women (following the interpretation of Maharz”u) and seducing married women, building idolatrous altars, and attempting to murder Yitzchak: he would take his young half-brother into the fields on the pretext of checking on the crops, and then shoot arrows at him as though only in jest.
Little wonder, then, that Sarah wanted this young hooligan out of the house!
But this raises another puzzling question. When Hagar and Yishmael, banished from Abraham and Sarah’s house, were wandering thorough the desert near Beer Sheva and their bottle of water was depleted, Hagar feared that her son would die of thirst and wept. “And God heard the voice of the youth, and an angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven saying to her: What has happened to you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the youth as he is now” (Genesis 21:17).
The Midrash (Eichah Rabbati 2:4 and Bereishit Rabbah 53:14) picks up on the phrase “God has heard the voice of the youth as he is now” – what do the words “as he is now” mean? After all,when else could God have heard Yishmael’s voice?
“The ministering angels jumped to accuse him, saying: Sovereign of all Worlds, will You produce a well for a man who in the future is going to put Your children to death by thirst?! [God] said to them: Presently what is he – righteous or evil? They said to Him: Righteous. He responded to them: I only judge a man as he is now”.
But if, as the Midrash earlier said, Sarah wanted Yishmael banished from the house because he was committing sexual immorality, idolatry, and murder, then how could the ministering angels say that he was righteous? And if he had committed these sins, then why indeed did God produce the well to save his life?
Let us return to that earlier Midrash and see the exact wording: “‘Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, jesting’ (Genesis 21:9)…this teaches that our mother Sarah would see Yishmael raping unmarried women and seducing married women… Our mother Sarah would see Yishmael building idolatrous altars…” (Bereishit Rabbah 53:11).
From the unusual wording (“Sarah would see Yishmael raping unmarried women…” rather than simply “Sarah saw Yishmael raping…”, or even more simply “Yishmael raped unmarried women…”), I suggest that Yishmael was not actually committing these sins – yet. Sarah, however, foresaw that one day he would be doing all this. After all, the Midrash (Sh'mot Rabbah 1:1 and Tanhuma, Sh’mot 1) derives from this whole episode that “Abraham was subordinate to Sarah in prophecy”, which was why God commanded Abraham “everything that Sarah tells you – listen to her voice” (Genesis 21:12).
So at this tender age, Yitzchak and Yishmael were both righteous. They both had tremendous potential – after all, they were both biological sons of Abraham our father himself! True, God decreed to Abraham that “your seed shall be called through Yitzchak” (ibid.) – but nevertheless, Yishmael had inherited the genes of holiness from his father.
And true, Yishmael was born to Hagar and thus did not inherit Sarah’s innate righteousness – yet he must have inherited Hagar’s genes of greatness. Hagar was, after all, born to royalty, the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh (Bereishit Rabbah 45:1, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 26).
Both Yitzchak and Yishmael had the best possible start in life; both began at an unimaginably high spiritual level. Both were given names which looked forward to what they could achieve.Yet see what each made of himself!
Yitzchak – “he will laugh”. As we saw earlier, when Yishmael was “metzachek” (“jesting”), he was on the way to committing the three cardinal sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder. The Midrashim (cited above) and Rashi (commentary to Genesis 21:9) cite several instances from the Tanach where the verb “laugh” appears in connexion with these three sins.
Yes, Yitzchak – “he will laugh” – could have chosen to walk Yishmael’s path and regressed into the most heinous of sins. He had free will, and he chose to remain on his father’s path of holiness and to make his laughter the laughter of holiness.
And Yishmael – “God will hear” – could have chosen to retain his mother’s attribute of royalty and to remain on his father’s path of holiness. What greatness he could then have achieved, for himself and for his descendants!
But Yishmael, too, had free will, and he chose other paths. The angel told Hagar to call her as-yet-unborn son Yishmael, “because Hashem has heard your prayer” (Genesis 16:11), and Yishmael could have chosen to actualise his name for good. But he instead chose the bad. “So why was he called Yishmael (‘God will hear’)? – Because in the future time, God will hear the screaming of the nation [of Israel] because of what Yishmael’s descendants will do to them in the Land of Israel at the end of days” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 32).
Yitzchak and Yishmael: both given the potential for greatness, both named before their births – and both of whose names will be applied at the end of days. Yishmael’s descendants will cause Yitzchak’s descendants to scream. But ultimately yishma El – God will hear their screams and will save them.
And then yitzchak – he will laugh. “Then will our mouths be filled with laughter” said King David, looking forward to the time when God will return the Jewish exiles to Zion. Complete laughter is not for this world: “A person is forbidden to fill his mouth in this world, as it says ‘Then will our mouths be filled with laughter and our tongues with joyful song (Psalms 126:2)’. And when will this be? – At the time when ‘they will say among the nations, Hashem has done great things for them’ (ibid.)” (Berachot 31a).
We are already deep into the first of these eras – the time when the nation of Israel screams because of what Yishmael’s descendants are doing to them in the Land of Israel. The Midrash shines forth as a veritable beacon of hope: God will hear the voice of their screams, and then Abraham’s true descendants and heirs, free and independent once again in their Land, will laugh.