Ishmael: Righteous Or Rogue?

Ishmael: Righteous Or Rogue?

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 5:36 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 18:1-22:24
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1-37
Havdalah: 6:35 p.m.

Sarah, seeing that her stepson Ishmael was a menace to the spiritual health of her only son Isaac, tells Abraham to drive him out of their house, together with his mother Hagar. God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah, who then sends Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert with some bread and water. When their provisions run out, Hagar casts her son under a tree, moving away at some distance, not wanting to witness his death. God hears the boy crying, and sends an angel to tell Hagar that He hears his voice, “ba’asher hu shom,” “as he is there” [Genesis 21:17].

These key words become the object of comments by Rashi. Quoting R’ Yitzchak [tractate Rosh Hashanah 16B], “A person is judged only from his actions of that moment, as it is stated, ‘For God has heard the boy’s cries, as he is there.’” Rashi goes on to cite the Midrash: At that very time the angels were prosecuting Ishmael, they were questioning the Lord who was about to miraculously save the boy. The angels said,  ‘His descendants will kill many of the Jewish people. Let him die now,” they counsel [Bereishit Rabah 53:14]. God answers by asking, ‘Is he a tzaddik, a righteous person now, or an evildoer?’ ‘Tzaddik,’ they answer. ‘So that is how I will judge him,’ (says God), ‘Ba’asher hu shom.’” A person is not judged by his future actions, says the Talmud and Midrash.

But is this consistent with two other incidents found in the Torah? In the first story, Moses goes out from Pharaoh’s palace to his brethren, and sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. Moses looks around and sees “that there was no man,” and he kills the Egyptian [Exodus 2:12]. Rashi comments that Moses saw prophetically that no future proselyte would descend from the Egyptian.

The second example is the story of the Ben Sorer U’Moreh, the wayward and rebellious son who doesn’t listen to his parents. The parents take him to the elders of the city. The parents testify that the son steals and is a glutton and a drunkard [Deuteronomy 21:19]. The son is executed. Rashi explains that we look into the future and see that this boy was killed because of what will happen in the coming years. He is destined to exhaust his father’s money while maintaining his bad habits. Not finding the money he needs, the son becomes a highwayman. The Torah says that better he die in a relatively innocent state rather than die guilty. We see, then, that both these examples contradict the citations that say that a person is judged by his present state.

Let me suggest a totally different view of how Ishmael was judged. The Midrash says that he was a tzaddik at that time. Was he really? Remember, Ishmael was a mocker (“metzachek”). Rashi defines this term by telling us that the boy was committing the three cardinal sins: idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. For this, Sarah insisted that he be thrown out of Abraham’s house. A tzaddik? Hardly. But we learn that much later in his life Ishmael does teshuva, he repents. More than 70 years later, at Abraham’s funeral, Isaac and Ishmael come to the Cave of Machpelah to bury him [Gen. 25:9]. Rashi, quoting the Talmud [Bava Basra 16B], tells us that this is where Ishmael did teshuva. Abraham died in a good old age, seeing both his sons following his ways.

But what about the words “Ba’asher hu shom,” “as he is there,” which R’ Yitzchok and Rashi insist is at the present time and not in the future. Why isn’t “Shom” (“there”) the Cave of Machpelah? Sarah passes away and Abraham goes to buy a burial place for her. He negotiates with Ephron and says the following: “I have given you the money for the field, take it from me, “V’ekbera et maiti shoma,” “that I may bury my dead there.” “There” has a remez, a hidden meaning, pointing to the Cave of Machpelah. As Ishmael lay dying of thirst the angel tells Hagar “as he is there,” “b’asher hu shom.” I would suggest that even in this case, as the other two instances of the Egyptian and the rebellious son, there is consistency. They were all judged on their future states of being.

In the last 1,300 years, the sons of Ishmael have for the most part tormented their cousins, the Jewish people. Certainly that is true today. But there is a fascinating commentary in the Book of Zechariah. In the End of Days, ten men from different nations “will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you’” [Zechariah 8:23]. The commentator Malbim (Meir Leibush ben-Yehiel Michel Weiser, 1809-79) comments on this verse that the Ishmaelites will be the first of all the nations to recognize the God of Israel and his Torah. Perhaps Ishmael was saved from death in the desert, not because of his state at that time, and not even because of his repentance at the Cave of Machpelah. Rather “there,” “shom,” refers to the Messianic period. And that is why on that day, in the torrid desert near Beer-Sheva, God gave His merciful and favorable judgment on young Ishmael.

Fred Ehrman has held leadership positions in various Jewish organizations, and is in his fourth cycle of Daf Yomi, the daily study of the Talmud.

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