Parashat Hayyei Sarah: The two sons of Abraham

A father must never give up on his child, even a mocking, heretical and grasping son.

modern hebron 88 224 (photo credit: Illustrative photo by Ariel Jerozolimski)
modern hebron 88 224
(photo credit: Illustrative photo by Ariel Jerozolimski)
"And Abraham expired and died at a good old age, wise and satisfied… and Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the Cave of the Couples [Machpela]…" (Gen. 25:8,9) "From this we learn that Ishmael repented" (Rashi, ad loc). Throughout the three biblical portions dealing with Abraham's life - Lech Lecha, Vayera and Hayyei Sarah - we read of the tensions between Abraham and Sarah concerning how to deal with Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham's "mistress" and son. And since the Ramban (Nahmanides) has set down the principle that "the stories of the ancestors presage and foreshadow the history of their descendants," the interplay between these personalities may shed light on Isaac-Ishmael 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 in order to gain an heir. But as soon as Hagar becomes pregnant, the tensions begin: Hagar "makes light" of Sarah, Sarah blames Abraham (apparently for not properly chastising the maidservant) and "afflicts" Hagar, which causes the maidservant to flee into the desert (Gen. 16:1-16). An angel exhorts Hagar to allow herself to be afflicted, promising her a son, Ishmael, who will have innumerable progeny, but who will be a "wild ass of a man, whose hand will be over everything and everyone, and everyone will be over him, and who will dwell in the face of all his brothers" (ibid 12). The classical commentaries are critical of Sarah: "Our matriarch sinned with this affliction [of Hagar], and also Abraham [sinned] in his allowing her to do it," says the Ramban, adding that - in measure-for-measure fashion - the descendants of Ishmael will afflict the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Rabbenu David Kimhi (the Radak) warns us to learn what not to do from our ancestors' affliction of Hagar. However, Rav Elhanan Samet points out that Sarah and Abraham can hardly be faulted. If we study the Code of Hammurabi (accepted legal practice at the time and place of our forefathers), which stipulated that if a handmaiden brought into a childless marriage to provide an heir then acts as an equal to her mistress, the mistress may demote her to her prior status (Hammurabi Code 144, 146, 147). Apparently Sarah was justified in returning Hagar to her earlier status (the "affliction" of the Bible), which also explains why the angel instructs Hagar to submit to Sarah's "affliction." But then, as Ishmael and Isaac grow up together in Abraham's household, "Sarah sees the son of the Egyptian Hagar mocking [so translates Targum Onkelos]; And she said to Abraham, 'Banish this handmaiden and her son, because the son of this handmaiden will not inherit together with my son, with Isaac.' And the matter was very evil in the eyes of Abraham concerning his son" (Gen. 21:9-11). Abraham loves Ishmael; when God first promises him a son with Sarah, he cries out: "Would that Ishmael would live before you" (Gen. 17:18). In such an instance, when there are children from a maidservant and children from the initial wife, and the husband declares the maidservant's children to be his, then all the children share the inheritance equally (Hammurabi 170). So far, Sarah has followed the rules completely. Therefore, I believe that her request for banishment is not because she is against Ishmael's sharing of the inheritance; it is rather because she believes that the mocking Ishmael, who has already been described by God's angel as "a wild ass of a man whose hand is over everything" and who insists on owning it all, would be incapable of sharing anything with Isaac. Therefore, he must be banished and disinherited. He cannot - constitutionally - inherit together with someone else! And God Himself endorses Sarah's assessment, telling Abraham not to feel badly about Ishmael and Hagar, but rather to obey Sarah (Gen. 21:12). Nevertheless, the Midrash (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 30, Yalkut Shimoni 95) poignantly describes how Abraham's conscience bothers him for having banished Ishmael. Abraham can't stop thinking about his firstborn son, "wishing to know about the path his son has taken." After three years he sets out to visit him, swearing to Sarah that he won't descend from his camel. Only Ishmael's wife is at home, and she refuses to give water or bread to Abraham. The patriarch asks her to tell Ishmael of his visit, and to change the threshold of the house. Abraham returned to Ishmael three years later, and was pleased to find that his son had gotten the message and changed wives; his new wife, named Fatima (also the name of Muhammad's daughter), offered Abraham bread and water. Abraham thereupon prayed for his son, whose house became filled with blessings. When Ishmael was told what had happened, he understood that "Abraham's love and compassion extended to him as a father's love and compassion for his children." I believe that the Midrash is telling 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 returns to his father's house (at least in time for the burial), and our portion concludes with the 12 sons of Ishmael - 12 princes of nations - paralleling the 12 tribes of Israel, "whose portion falls out in the presence of all his brothers" (25:18). And the Midrash likewise suggests that Keturah, the woman Abraham marries after Sarah's death, was actually Hagar, and the matchmaker was none other than Isaac! (Gen. 25:11 and 24:62, Rashi there). The circle is complete. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.