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 monumentally successful.
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 priority.
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 of Judgment!
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.