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Vayera: How to Treat Infidels


Lessons from Abraham, Father of Ishmael & Isaac, On the Nature of Faith

Abraham was very troubled over his son [Ishmael] – Genesis 21:11

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 d’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 32. Yalkut Mechiri Psalms 177)

The continuing saga of Abraham, Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac in this week’s 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 around us.

In this week’s portion Isaac is born. Later, when Isaac’s mother Sarah sees Ishmael’s 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 Hagar’s 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 today’s events.

Interestingly the section about Isaac’s birth and Ishmael’s 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 Ishmael’s journey and G-d’s 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 Isaac’s 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 Abraham’s 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 and coexistence?

In this week’s 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 world’s 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 Abraham’s faith was not about himself, it was about G-d. All people are G-d’s children and Abraham could not tolerate the death of any of G-d’s 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-d’s children – to educate and inspire them to follow G-d’s 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, Abraham’s 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.

Abraham’s message of faith that includes love is demonstrated in another incident, at the beginning of this week’s 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… Isn’t 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 feed them!

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-d’s creatures.

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 that’s 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 way.

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, Ishmael’s 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 Abraham’s 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 Isaac’s home was Abraham’s 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?

Suggested Actions

  • 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.

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