Lessons from Abraham, Father of Ishmael
On the Nature of Faith
by Simon Jacobson
November 1, 2001
Abraham was very troubled over his son [Ishmael]
Why is he called Ishmael? Because in the
future G-d will listen to the cry of the nation for what the
children of Ishmael will do in the future, at the end of days
as it says (Psalms 55:20) G-d will listen and answer
(Midrash Pirkei dRabbi Eliezer ch. 32. Yalkut Mechiri
The continuing saga of Abraham, Sarah, Ishmael
and Isaac in this weeks Torah chapter continues to reflect
the ongoing events of our times, and continues to provide
us with clarity and direction as we face so much uncertainty
In this weeks portion Isaac is born. Later,
when Isaacs mother Sarah sees Ishmaels behavior
she insists that Abraham send him away from their home. Abraham
is very troubled by the prospect of sending his son away but
G-d tells Abraham to not be distressed. Do everything
that Sarah tells you, send away your son, I will
make him into a nation for he is your son.
The chapter details Ishmael and Hagars
exile and how G-d hears their prayer and promises Hagar: do
not be afraid
I will make of him a great nation.
The Torah relates that G-d was with the boy. He grew
and lived in the desert, where he became an expert archer.
Ishmael finally settles in the Paran Desert and marries a
woman from Egypt.
Many contemporary lessons can be derived from
this story. I would strongly suggest that we all read these
chapters very closely, as they can help open up for us some
of the mysteries shrouding todays events.
Interestingly the section about Isaacs
birth and Ishmaels exile is read in its entirety on
the first day of Rosh Hashanah. This clearly demonstrates
the centrality of the story, not just the birth of Isaac but
also Ishmaels journey and G-ds promise to him.
Allow me to share some thoughts that come to
mind upon reading this Torah portion.
Abraham, the man of absolute faith, passes on
his passionate faith and commitment to G-d to his children,
Ishmael and Isaac the respective fathers of the Arab/Muslim
world and the Jewish nation. [The legacy will later be passed
on to Isaacs children, Jacob, father of the Jewish people
and Esau, father of the Western/Roman/Christian world (Edom)].
The evolution of religion and all its manifestations
and distortions can be traced back to Abrahams passionate
faith and what he taught his children, and what they did or
did not do with these teachings.
The greatest challenge facing religious faith
is how to coexist with people of other beliefs without compromising
yourself or others. How do you balance your own absolute beliefs
with compassion for those that may not share your beliefs?
Do you destroy those that have no faith or are of another
faith? Do you tolerate them?
History is fraught with religious battles that
were harsher than any others ever fought. More people were
probably killed in the name of faith than in any other way.
Up until the middle of the second millennium the Church dominated
and imposed its beliefs on the masses. The Crusades and the
Inquisition are some of the most infamous examples of holy
wars fought in the name of God.
What did Abraham teach his children about faith
In this weeks Torah portion G-d informs
Abraham that He is going to destroy the wicked city of Sodom.
What does Abraham do? He beseeches G-d not to destroy them
lest innocent people be killed together with the wicked. G-d
tells Abraham that if he can find 50 innocent people in the
city He will spare the entire city. Abraham continues to negotiate:
what about if there are 45 innocent people. G-d agrees not
to destroy them for the sake of the 45. What about, 40, 30,
20, 10? In each case G-d agrees not to destroy them for the
sake of the few innocent. Abraham gets it down to 10 people.
And then realizing that there are no innocent people in Sodom,
Abraham finally relents.
Abraham was not naïve. He knew that Sodom was
a city of cruel and corrupt people. A city of infidels. Yet,
not only does Abraham, the man of faith, not go and destroy
these people or ask G-d to destroy them, but even when G-d
Himself wants to destroy them, Abraham defends them and accuses
G-d: Shall the worlds Judge not do justice?!
Why did Abraham not take an approach that those
that defy G-d need to be destroyed? After all, Abraham was
not complacent about G-d. He paid heavy prices for his faith
and beliefs. He dedicated his life for it and was ready to
die for G-d. Why did he take upon himself the cause of saving
Sodom? Because Abrahams faith was not about himself,
it was about G-d. All people are G-ds children and Abraham
could not tolerate the death of any of G-ds creatures.
When you love G-d, you love what your beloved loves, and G-d
loves his creations.
Abraham was committed to G-d, and this commitment
meant that he was committed to G-ds children
to educate and inspire them to follow G-ds law. And
when someone was corrupt, Abraham taught him with compassion
how to repair his ways.
Faith in G-d is faith in the human race created
in the Image of G-d. Faith in the human spirit. Faith in G-d
is about repair and transformation, not about destruction.
True, the end result was that Sodom had no redeeming
factor and was so corrupt that they essentially destroyed
themselves. Nevertheless, the Torah documents in protracted
detail, Abrahams attempt to save them. Why would the
Torah tell us of this attempt if it was futile? To teach us
the nature of true faith the faith of Abraham
that you do not passively accept destruction even of the wicked.
Your faith dictates that you pray and pray, you beseech and
implore that G-d preserve your fellow man.
Abrahams message of faith that includes
love is demonstrated in another incident, at the beginning
of this weeks chapter. G-d appears to Abraham. In middle
of their discussion, Abraham suddenly sees three strangers
approaching him. He turns away from G-d to greet the strangers
Isnt that chutzpah? G-d makes a one time appearance
to Abraham and Abraham does not hesitate to turn away from
G-d to greet strangers and welcome them into his tent and
The lesson is clear: Faith in G-d extends to
loving other people, regardless of their background and similarity
to you. Indeed, Abraham thought that these three strangers
were pagans, dust worshippers! Yet, he greets them knowing
that is the greatest way to greet G-d. From this incident
we derive the lesson that greeting guests is greater
than welcoming G-d. Had Abraham remained with G-d and
ignored the strangers, he would have embraced G-d in a selfish
way only for himself. By greeting the guests he greeted
G-d in a more powerful way through greeting G-ds
In a cold room you can warm yourself by donning
a fur coat, which warms you but no one else. Or you can light
a fireplace, and then warm everyone in the room. Faith is
not about you alone, it is about everyone around you as well.
Abraham is the epitome of chesed (love)
and the epitome of faith. Precisely because faith is so passionate
and potent a force, it can be very destructive when not driven
and tempered by love and compassion.
Ishmael was a wild man, he inherited
the wild and powerful passion of faith. And thats exactly
why, of all people, Ishmael is in such critical need of bittul
humility and suspension of self to ensure
that his passion is channeled in a G-dly and not in a destructive
Secure faith in G-d does not require you to
destroy anyone that does not believe as you do. Secure faith
in G-d is the absolute dedication to inspire.
G-d does not tell Abraham to destroy his son
Ishmael. On the contrary, He promises him that he will be
a nation - a great nation. Indeed, Ishmaels journeys
are documented in the Torah how G-d is with him,
protects and blesses him. Ishmael, being a son of the faithful
Abraham, inherits Abrahams faith. However, this is true
only after Abraham listens to his wife Sarah and sends Ishmael
away from their home. Ishmael will be a great nation under
G-d, but only when he clearly recognizes his boundaries. Love
also requires discipline and only then is it true love,
that brings humility instead of arrogance (see Tanya, Iggeret
HaKodesh ch. 2). Sending Ishmael away from Isaacs home
was Abrahams ultimate act of love, and one that would
allow Ishmael to become a great nation.
Love is distorted when there are no boundaries.
Faith is absolute, but that does not preclude diversity
different people, different nations, serving G-d each in their
own way. Abraham taught faith and love, but he also taught
that each person must serve G-d in his/her unique way, and
that we inspire others to do so with compassion.
In a way, the need to separate between Isaac
and Ishmael reflects the struggle between two approaches to
faith and coexistence. Kabbalah and Chassidus teach that Ishmael
is untempered chesed, while Isaac is gevurah
(discipline), the antithesis of chesed, that balances
and channels the chesed of Abraham.
Each of us people of all faiths including
Muslims would do well to ask ourselves today: how my
father Abraham would react to my attitudes and beliefs. Would
he be proud of my behavior?
Reach out to people with different backgrounds than
your own, and have a discussion about faith.
Emulate Abraham by inviting guests to your home.
Review whether your faith helps you to inspire others
or to criticize others.