Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
When to Walk Away
Amidst the great joy and celebration surrounding the birth of
Yitzchak, it is easy to forget that Avraham already had a teenager
living at home. Thirteen years prior to Yitzchak's birth, Sarah had
given her maidservant, Hagar, as a concubine to Avraham, and she
had borne him Yishmael. As the two lads grew up together, it became
apparent to Sarah that Yishmael had the potential to be a negative
influence on Yitzchak, and asked that Avraham send him away.
Avraham was greatly distressed by her request. After all, Yishmael was
his son - his flesh and blood. It was not until the Almighty Himself told
Avraham (21:12), "Be not distressed over the youth nor over your
slavewoman: Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice!" that he came
to terms with what she was asking him to do.
While we tend to understand and interpret the events of the Torah
with the benefit of hindsight, it is not at all difficult to place oneself
in Avraham's shoes. No matter how challenging a child may be, a
parent does everything he can to try and help him. For a parent to
simply give up is untenable. Surely, Avraham was not blind to
Yishmael's violent and immoral tendencies. Nonetheless, he still
hoped that Yishmael would one day "turn out okay," and was thus
greatly distressed by Sarah's request that Yishmael be sent away on
a path of no-return.
After heeding G-d's command to banish his son, Yishmael almost
dies after running out of water while wandering with Hagar in the
desert. Hashem again intercedes, and appears to Hagar, who had
begun weeping over the impending death of her son. "G-d heard the
cry of the youth. And an angel of G-d called to Hagar from heaven,
and said to her: 'What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for G-d has
heard the cry of the youth where he is...' Then G-d opened her eyes,
and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled her skin with water,
and gave the youth to drink. (21:17-19)"
Rashi cites a Midrash which describes what exactly transpired in
heaven when Yishmael was saved. "Angels came and pleaded with
Hashem not to perform a miracle for Yishmael. They knew that, were
he to live, in the future his offspring would persecute and murder
Jews. Hashem responded that He does not judge individuals based
on the future, but according to their present state." This, explains the
Midrash, is the meaning of the angel's words, "For G-d has heard the
cry of the youth where he is," i.e. based on his present status.
There seems to be a contradiction here. On the one hand, Hashem
sides with Sarah that indeed, Yishmael must be sent away lest he
exert a negative influence upon Yitzchak, and is not swayed by
Avraham's desire to continue to raise Yishmael in the hope that he
may after all turn out okay. Yet when the angels ask that Hashem not
save Yishmael, they are rebuffed: "I do not judge people based on
what they may do or become. Is he not now righteous? If so, then I
will treat him as I would a righteous man!" The reader is left
wondering: Are we - or are we not - to deal with people based on our
perception of what may be the eventual outcome?
Rabbi Goldenstein, the menahel (principal) of a budding yeshiva, was
once faced with an agonizing dilemma. He was under tremendous
pressure to expel a certain student from his yeshiva. Many parents
and board members felt that Tzvi's misbehaviour and refusal to
conform to yeshiva rules and policies was beginning to have an effect
on their sons as well. "Why should we sacrifice our sons' chinuch
(education) on account of one no-good'nik?" they challenged. Rabbi
Goldenstein asked for patience. Tzvi's family pleaded with him to keep
him in Yeshiva. If he were to be expelled from Rabbi Goldenstein's
yeshiva, they feared, the blow to his ego would be too great, and any
hope that he may one day grow up to be a good Jew would be lost.
Eventually, the board's patience ran out. They demanded that Rabbi
Goldenstein expel Tzvi post-haste. Left with no choice, he contacted
Tzvi's family, and told them that Tzvi was no longer welcome in his
yeshiva. Understandably, they were crestfallen.
Years later, Rabbi Goldenstein ran into Tzvi. He almost didn't
recognize him. Here stood before him a young man who had
obviously grown up to become a ba'al middos tovos (man of great
character). His whole manner had changed. He prayed with
tremendous concentration, and his face shone with the joy known
only to those who study Torah. It seemed as if Tzvi had undergone
a complete metamorphosis.
Afterwards, he discussed this strange turn of events with a friend. "It
just goes to show you... " said the friend.
"Yeah - what does it show you?" challenged the Rabbi.
"Well, it goes to show you that you should never give up hope. Look -
who would have ever thought that Tzvi would have turned out like
"But don't you see - I did give up hope! I sent him away."
"Yeah - you're right. I don't know what it goes to show you. Expel a
troublemaker - and one day he'll be your Rabbi?"
While expelling Tzvi was extremely difficult, it was, Rabbi Goldenstein
felt, the right decision based on the circumstances. It would not have
been conscionable to allow him to continue in a yeshiva where he
didn't belong. Hashem, however, had different plans. Tzvi (perhaps as
a result of being expelled?) eventually found a yeshiva where he grew
Hashem does not judge people based on what the future seems to
hold for them. "For Hashem does not desire the death of the wicked,
but rather that they repent from their evil ways - and they will live.
(Yechezkel 18:32)" In Hashem's books, it is never too late. At the
same time, Hashem does not expect humans to blindly ignore what
in our eyes will be the result of our actions, or inaction.
I believe that this was Hashem's message to Avraham. "You do what
Sarah tells you to do," for she is right - the time has come to separate
Yishmael and Yitzchak. Not doing so is likely to endanger Yitzchak's
future as a patriarch. Hashem, on the other hand, functions on a
different plane. For Hashem to "give up hope" in an individual would
mean taking away his free-will, which includes the ability to repent. To
the very last, Hashem leaves the gates of repentance open for he who
wishes to pass through them.
This understanding turns the expression "playing G-d" on its ear.
Normally, we would consider making decisions based on one's
understanding or perception of future events as "playing G-d." Who
are we to say what the future holds in store? Yet, at least in this
context, playing G-d is actually the decision not to take action, even
when common sense dictates that the time has come to do so.
Sometimes, life presents us with painful situations, when it becomes
apparent that it is in our best interest to distance ourselves or our
children from others with whom we may once have seen eye to eye.
While it may seem appealing to invoke the old "never give up hope"
idiom, it behooves us to remember that it is G-d Who never gives up
hope. As humans, we may at times be forced to end relationships in
order to protect ourselves from harm's way. It's never an easy call,
and it's not something one should do without great deliberation.
Nonetheless, inaction itself is a form of action, and where painful
decisions must be made, it is foolish and dangerous to bury one's
head in the sand and pretend problems will just go away. Above all,
we must ask Hashem for the insight to know when to keep trying,
and when to walk away.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication was sponsored by Mr. and
Mrs. Chaim Sussman, in honour of the wedding of their
daughter, Esti, to Yisrael Meir HaKohen Zaltzer. And in
memory of R' Daniel Avraham ben R' Asher Lemel
Text Copyright © 2001 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.