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Abraham's Drama Puts Focus on Conflicts

November 20, 2008 By:
Rabbi Shomo Riskin
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Throughout the three biblical portions that deal with Abraham's life, we read of the tensions between Abraham and Sarah concerning the treatment of Hagar and Ishmael. Given that the Ramban established that one of the central principles driving Genesis is that "the stories of the ancestors presage and foreshadow the history of their descendants," the interplay between these personalities is not only fascinating familial accounts of proper and improper moral conduct, but also shed crucial light on relationships in the Middle East today.

Abraham and Sarah have a good, but childless, marriage, which leads Sarah to suggest that her husband consort with her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, so that he may gain an heir. But, as soon as Hagar becomes pregnant, the tensions begin: Hagar "makes light" of Sarah; Sarah blames Abraham (apparently, for not chastising Hagar) and "afflicts" Hagar, which causes the maidservant to flee into the desert. An angel of G-d exhorts Hagar to return to the house of Abraham and Sarah, and allow herself to be afflicted; he also promises her a son, Ishmael, who will have innumerable progeny.

I would suggest that Sarah is justified in her actions. She argues for banishing Ishmael, not because she's against Ishmael's sharing of the inheritance with Yitzhak; she is responding to the reality of a mocking Ishmael, who has already been described by God's angel as "a wild ass of a man whose hand is over everything," who is incapable of sharing anything with Yitzhak. Ishmael must be banished and disinherited because he cannot -- constitutionally -- share an inheritance. And God Himself endorses Sara's assessment, telling Abraham not to feel grieved about Ishmael and Hagar, but rather to heed Sarah's request.

Nevertheless, the Midrash poignantly describes Abraham's conscience gnawing at him for having banished Ishmael.

After three years, Abraham sets out to visit him, swearing to Sarah that it will be a perfunctory stop, that he won't even descend from his camel. Only Ishmael's wife is at home, and she refuses to give water or bread to Abraham. Departing, the patriarch asks her to tell Ishmael about his visit, and to change the entrance at the front of the tent. Three years later, Abraham returns and is pleased to find that Ishmael understood his message and changed wives; this wife, named Fatima (also the name of Mohammed's daughter), offered Abraham bread and water.

A Home Full of Blessings
Abraham thereupon prayed for his son, whose home became filled with blessings. When Ishmael returned, he was told what had transpired while he was away and understood "that Abraham's love and compassion extended to him with all the love and compassion that a father has for children."

I would suggest that one of the implicit purposes of this Midrash is to teach us why and how Ishmael repented at the end of Abraham's life.

A father must never give up on his child, even a mocking, heretical and grasping son. Ishmael, the penitent, returns to his father's house (at least in time for the burial), and our biblical portion concludes with the 12 sons of Ishmael, 12 princes of their nations, paralleling the 12 tribes of Israel, "whose portion falls out in the presence of all of his brothers." And the Midrash likewise identifies Keturah, the woman Abraham marries after Sarah's death, as being none other than Hagar, and the matchmaker was none other than Yitzhak! The circle -- for the ancient family of Abraham -- is complete.

I believe that once Ishmael again repents, and is ready to share, truly share, this land with us, we will indeed be able to dwell together in the Middle East, to fill our homes with blessings, and the historical circle will truly be complete.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.


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