Parsha of the Week

A banished Yishmael, and childlike innocence


The banishment of Yishmael and Hagar leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. How could Sarah justify throwing them out of the house? How could G-d tell Avraham to do exactly as Sarah told him? How could Avraham send them on their way without enough food to survive in the desert?

These are 21st century sensitivities — a philosophy that requires thinking about the other guy, even when the other guy is really harming me (“what about his feelings?”).

Sarah had invited Hagar to be an additional wife for Avraham to build a family. Now that Yishmael hasn’t turned out the way she wants, and she’s also had her own baby, she is entitled to release her maidservant. Chizkuni (21:14) points out that Avraham could not “sell” Hagar because he had lived with her as a husband.

G-d could tell Avraham to do as Sarah wished because, first, G-d can say what He wants and, second, G-d had already promised that Yitzchak would be the next in line for Avraham’s new nation (17:19) — a point He confirms now with “Your offspring will stem from Yitzchak.” (21:12)

There is no indication that Avraham gave them less food than they needed. Ibn Ezra in fact suggests he gave her money and enough food to get to Be’er Sheva from Gerar. Since he did not give her a GPS, however, she got lost in the desert where her water eventually ran out and her money was useless.

Rabbenu Bachya ben Asher suggests that Avraham had a prophetic vision that in the future his children would be subservient to Yishmael’s descendants. As no nation in the history of the world will hate the Jewish people as the descendants of Yishmael will, Avraham followed the Solomonic rule of how to treat an enemy: Give him bread if he’s hungry and water if he’s thirsty (Proverbs 25:21).

Chizkuni (21:14) calls attention to the halachic principle that a convert to Judaism is no longer related to his blood relatives. As such, Yishmael was no longer entitled by Jewish law to Avraham’s inheritance. As many converts will affirm, however, just because a different religion is practiced does not mean the love disappears. Avraham did take care of the children of his other wives after Sarah’s death.

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This is why I am more perturbed by the way Yishmael is presented. He was 14 when Yitzchak was born, and Sarah throws him out after Yitzchak is weaned, which either means when he stopped nursing or when he stopped using diapers. This would put Yishmael’s age minimally at 16 or 17.

And yet, if we were to read the account without thinking of his age, we might assume he is less than 10 years old. He is sometimes called a yeled (boy), and sometimes a na’ar (lad) of age 13. Is this a revisionist presentation, advocating a sympathy vote to make Yishmael look good and Avraham look bad?

They say 70 is the new 50. Perhaps 17 is the new 13, or 10?

Many of the commentaries focus on Yishmael’s prayer, and the specific phrase ba’asher hu sham (meaning, whether he was deserving or not), his prayer was heartfelt and penitent when he offered it, and he was judged for life over death based on “how he was at that moment.”

It is hard to say whether this is enough justification to present Yishmael as a preteen instead of his high school senior age, but there is something quite compelling about his seeming innocence in this story, as it is presented.

We do not know what Yishmael was doing in 21:9 that caused Sarah to be concerned about his influence on her son. The Torah says he was m’tzachek (which could mean mocking, fooling around with, making jokes, or something else). Rashi thinks the worst (murder, idolatry and immorality), but Ramban and others disagree.

Rabbenu Bachya even suggests Yishmael’s mocking behavior warranted a death sentence, because a servant who mocks his master may be killed. From this perspective, the banishment was actually saving Yishmael’s life.

In this light, perhaps the Torah’s presentation of Yishmael as an innocent youth is meant to remove the possible gravity of his behavior from the equation, and to paint the picture of a misguided youth who was growing up in the wrong household for his particular needs.

When we come across difficult people, it is important to recognize where they are coming from and what influences inform their behavior. Actions which stem from naïveté and innocence require us to confront the wrong behavior and see how we can educate or re-educate to come up with a solution or a change in attitude and behavior more in line with our accepted social mores.

Originally published in 2008.