Sunday, December 20, 2009

How Should We View Yishmael in Jewish Tradition?

The last few weeks in our Sunday morning shiur with Daniel Fridman, we have been examining the personality of Yishmael in the Chumash and also how he is understood by a number of the Rishonim (Jewish commentators who were active before 1500 CE). I was surprised to learn that rather than having a negative attitude towards Yishmael, there are a number of authorities who see Yishmael in a positive light and that his expulsion was deeply unfortunate and perhaps casts a shadow on Avraham and Sarah's actions. In this scenario, Yitzchak becomes a more active figure who strives to maintain a good relationship with Yishmael and seems to find solace in Beer Lechai Ro'i, the well associated with Yishmael and Hagar. Indeed, after Sarah death, Yitzchak seems to bring Hagar back to Avraham, albeit with the name Keturah, as his wife once again. The positive (or at least not negative) attitude towards Yishmael and his family continues into the next generation when Esav rebuffed for taking a Canaanite wife, takes as another wife a daughter of Yishmael.

What does it all mean? One of the first things we learn about Yishmael is that God hears his cries when he is about to die in the desert, "ba-asher hu sham," as he is in that time and place. Whatever he may become in the future has no relevance for when he was in the desert about to die, he was a zaddik and God took cognizance of him and enabled Hagar to find water for him. Perhaps this is how we should treat those whom we have had a falling out. Perhaps we have to forgive past slights and perhaps even anticipated slights and deal with people as they are, in the moment. Perhaps a forgiving attitude will lead to a more positive relationship. We can only hope.

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