By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Yishmael & Hagar: A Perspective
Following the birth of Yitzchak the Torah relates the story of Yishmael's
expulsion from the house of Avraham. Initiated by Sarah's concerns over the
negative influence that Yishmael was exerting over Yitzchak, Avraham was at
first troubled by Sarah's insistence on chasing Yishmael from their home.
However, G-d instructed Avraham, "Do everything that Sarah tells you."
(21:12) So, Avraham sent Yishmael and Hagar out into the desert with nothing
more than bread and water.
There are a number of questions that beg attention. Why was Sarah insistent
on expelling Yishmael and Hagar? What happened to the love and compassion
for her husband's son who had grown up in her home? Why wasn't she concerned
for the hurt that Yishmael's expulsion would cause Avraham? What lesson do
we learn from Avraham's reluctance to listen to Sarah, and G-d's
intervention? After G-d intervenes and tells Avraham to listen to Sarah, why
did he send Yishmael and Hagar into the desert with such meager provisions?
Avraham was a very wealthy man! He could have easily sent along a caravan of
provisions and an entourage of servants!
The verse tells us that it was Hagar, not Yishmael, who carried the "pitcher
of water." Yishmael was approximately 17 years old at the time of his
expulsion. Why was Hagar carrying the water? Why wasn't he "shlepping" the
provisions? Undoubtedly, having grown up in the desert, he and Hagar were
familiar with basic survival techniques. How is it that they finished all
their water before securing proper shelter for themselves? When Yishmael
became ill, why did Hagar leave him "beneath one of the bushes" and go "the
distance of a bowshot away?" I would think that a mother would want to be
with her child until the very end!
When the angle called to Hagar and reassured her that Yishmael was destined
to become a great nation, she was told that it was the "boy's voice" and not
her own prayers that evoked G-d's mercy and compassion. What lesson do we
learn from Yishmael regarding prayer and G-d's responsiveness? The Torah
concluded the episode of Yishmael's expulsion by letting us know that
Yishmael became an expert archer. Why is it important for us to know
Yishmael's prowess as an archer?
In attempting to understand Sarah and Avraham's actions it is imperative that
we remember who they were and what their assumed mission in life was.
Avraham and Sarahh were among the greatest teachers, if not the greatest
teachers, to have ever lived. Their teaching skills reflected their
all-consuming love for G-d and humanity, regardless of race or belief. Their
mission was to utilize their love and skills to reveal G-d's presence in
nature and integrate His expectations into the workings of society. As
singular individuals attempting to alter the beliefs of a world, they were
The household of Avraham and Sarahh was comprised of "…and the souls that
they had influenced in Charan". These individuals and their families had
been influenced by Avraham and Sarahh's love and teachings to the extent
where they uprooted themselves and followed them wherever they traveled. It
goes without saying that Avraham and Sarahh's love and concern for these
"students" was without qualification or limit. We can also assume that
Sarahh's love for Hagar and Yishmael, regardless of her criticisms, was also
without measure or qualification. Therefore, whatever transpired in this
week's Parsha with the expulsion of Yishmael had to be an expression of Sarah
and Avraham's unqualified love for the two of them.
With Yitzchak's birth Sarah's focus clearly changed. Whereas before his
birth Sarahh was the spiritual mother to all who entered her home, after
Yitzchak was born Sarahh's focus was directed exclusively toward her son.
Yitzchak became her project. Sarahh's monumental talents as a teacher and
the unfathomable depths of her compassion and selflessness were brought to
bear on her son's training and education. In all areas of life we are forced
to prioritize. With Yitzchak's birth Sarah accepted the fact that she could
not continue in her capacity as "teacher to all." Yitzchak would require all
of her attention if he was to become Yitzchak Avinu and the next stage in the
development of the Jewish People. Yitzchak rightfully became Sarah's
Sarah's vigilance in overseeing Yitzchak's development was relentless. As
the masterful teacher that she was, her concern with his social interactions
were as important as her concern for his spiritual development. Therefore,
upon observing Yishmael playing with Yitzchak, she became concerned and felt
compelled to take action.
Rav Avigdor Miller Shlit'a once explained that Sarah's insistence on removing
Yishmael from the home and from Yitzchak was as important for Yishmael's
healthy development as it was for Yitzchak. With the birth of Yitzchak,
Yishmael was relegated to a lesser position within the household. Yitzchak
was the heir apparent. Yitzchak was the center of Sarah and Avraham's
attention. Can you imagine how difficult it must have been for Yishmael to
realize that by contrast he was only, "the son of the maidservant?" by
sending Yishmael away, Sarah provided the necessary space for the healthy
development of his individuality and self-image. By living away from
Yitzchak, Yishmael was the focus of his own mother's undivided attention as
well as receiving the full attention of his father during Avraham's many
visits with Yismael. Sarah's hard-line was as clearly an expression of her
love and concern for Yishmael as it was for Yitzchak. However, Avraham's
emotional connection with his son made it very difficult for him to send him
away. Sarah, on the other hand, clearly saw that for the sake of all
involved, Yishmael had to be sent away.
G-d confirmed Sarah's understanding and decision, and reassured Avraham that
Yishmael and Yitzchak would ultimately benefit. It might be said that this
was the one time when Avraham failed to do the right thing on his own. He
should have recognized his subjective relationship with Yishmael and how
those feelings interfered with his ability to do the right thing. However,
it might be suggested that at the same time G-d was training Avraham for his
greatest test, the Akeidas Yitzchak.
At the end of the Parsha, which took place almost 34 years after Yishamel's
expulsion, Avraham was commanded to ignore his most fundamental feelings of
love for Yitzchak and offer him as a sacrifice upon the Mizbeach. Sarah's
insistence on sending Yishmael away forced Avraham to ignore his feelings for
Yishmael and do the right thing. This was the training ground for Avraham to
enable him to do the same with Yitzchak at the time of the Akeida.
Once Avraham accepted Sarah's decision, along with G-d's reassurances, he was
able to resume being the master teacher. He realized that Yishmael's
greatest challenge would be to conquer his own ego and accept his dependency
upon G-d. Avraham recognized that Yitzchak and Yishmael would eventually
become partners in spreading the ideals of monotheism. In order to do so,
Yishmael's personal relationship with G-d had to be founded on unqualified
acceptance of his absolute dependency upon G-d. In order to foster that
understanding of dependency Avraham sent them out into the desert with
minimum provisions. Once they were depleted they would have no other choice
but to turn to G-d. It also appears that Yishmael had already exhibited
signs of being ill. Otherwise, it doesn't make sense that Hagar would be
carrying the water rather than Yishmael. Yet, Avraham was relentless in
carrying out G-d's command to follow Sarah's instructions. Knowing the
dangers they would face, Avraham trusted G-d to take care of them. He showed
them that as humans we are only obligated to make an effort in caring for
ourselves. Our ultimate success and safety is G-d's doing. Therefore,
minimum provisions should have been sufficient.
Where did Hagar go after being expelled? I would like to suggest that
knowing that Yishmael was sick, and seeing their water disappear, she went in
the direction of her previous encounter with the angel. She went in the
direction of B'er L'chai Ro'ee (17:14). However, upon arriving, she could
not locate the well, and with Yishmael's worsening condition, she became
despondent and gave up. Not wanting to witness his death, she distanced
herself as far an arrow is fired from a bow. Yishmael, abandoned and alone,
sensed that his salvation depended on G-d, and prayed to G-d for salvation.
Hagar, knowing the severity of the situation also prayed to G-d.
Rashi (21:17) references the Gemara in Rosh Hashana (17b) that relates how
the angels argued against G-d saving Yishmael. "Yishmael's descendents would
one day be responsible for killing Jews, so why save Yishmael and suffer
later on. Let him die now and avoid the future tragedy! G-d answered, "At
this moment, is he righteous or evil?" G-d then responded, "As he is" - I
only judge the world as they are, in the here and now!"
>From this exchange we learn a fundamental principle about G-d's system of
justice. G-d only judges us as we are at the moment of judgment. If we
should do Teshuva right before the moment of Judgment, even if G-d knows that
we will not maintain our resolve, we re still judged to be righteous at the
moment of justice! This is why we read the story of Yishmael's expulsion on
the first day of Rosh Hashana, and why our sincere but short lived attempts
at doing Teshuva around Rosh Hashana are of enormous significance on the Day
G-d accepted Yishmael's sincere expressions of dependency and showed Hagar
the well she had been searching for. Yishmael was revived and he and Hagar
build for themselves a home. However, the episode had a profound and lasting
affect on Yishmael. At the moment of his greatest personal crisis his mother
had abandoned him. True, it was the loneliness and helplessness which helped
motivate Yishmael to cry out to G-d and express his absolute dependency.
However, in the process, Yishmael learned to distance himself from life's
pain just as Hagar had distanced herself from his pain. To an extent he
became emotionally indifferent. That is why the Torah tells us that Yishmael
became an expert archer. An archer, who shoots from the distance, is removed
from his victim. He does not witness up-front the pain, suffering, and
death. In many ways it would prove to be a distinguishing characteristic
between the children of Yitzchak, who are renown for their compassion and
sensitivity, and the children of Yishmael, who appear to kill and destroy
with such indifference to the pain and suffering they cause.
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.