The Birth of Ishmael and Isaac
Tracing the Roots of Today’s Global Conflict
Living with the times – with the Torah portion read this week – has never seemed more appropriate.
America is now in the painful throes of facing an assault from an unknown enemy. Fear of the unknown is much more debilitating than the known. In the face of such fear, nothing can be more empowering than gaining a better understanding of the forces affecting our lives today.
We know little more about the attack on September 11 than the fact that it stems from a certain part of the world and that it is dressed in religious garb – one filled with passionate extremism. Can we get to know more about this new war?
The answer is yes. This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, illuminates the roots of the tremors shaking our lives today. In this chapter a process begins that leads to the events of our times.
Abraham gives birth to Ishmael, father of the Arab/Muslim world, and then later to Isaac, father of the Jewish people. Isaac would later bear Esau, father of the Roman/Christian world (referred to as Edom). These individuals and their interactions set the stage for the events to come.
But let us step back for a moment and read the dialogue in our Torah portion between G-d and Abram [later his name would be changed to Abraham]. This dialogue takes place before the birth of Ishmael or Isaac and is part of one of the most fundamental events in history: G-d’s covenant with Abram, called “Bris bein Ha’Besorim,” “the covenant between the halves.”
“G-d’s word comes to Abram in a vision, saying: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield. Your reward is very great.’ Abram said: ‘O, G-d what will you give me if I remain childless’?…
“Suddenly G-d’s word came to him: “… One born from your own body will inherit what is yours. He then took him outside, and said: “Look at the sky and count the stars. See if you can count them… that is how [numerous] your descendants will be. Abram believed in G-d and he counted it as righteousness.
“[Abram] said: ‘G-d, how can I really know that it will be mine?’ [G-d] said to him: ‘Bring for Me a prime heifer, a prime goat, a prime ram, a dove and a young pigeon.’ Abram brought all these for Him. He split them in half, and placed one half opposite the other. The birds, however, he did not split. Vultures descended on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
“As the sun was setting, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and a deep dark dread fell upon him. [G-d] said to Abram: ‘Know for sure that your descendants will foreigners in a land that is not theirs for 400 years. They will be enslaved and oppressed. But I will finally bring judgment against the nation who enslaves them, and they will then leave with great wealth…’
“The sun set, and it became very dark. A smoking furnace and a flaming torch passed between the halves of the animals. On that day G-d made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your seed I have given this land (The Land of Israel), from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates’.” — Genesis 15:1-21
What was the “deep dark dread” that befell Abraham? The Midrash explains that Abraham was shown the future great empires that would control the world and bring terror to it, each in their own way: the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman and Ishmaelite empires.
The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the holy Arizal) explains that these empires – that extend over the entire span of history – represent the different stages of refinement (birur) that we achieve throughout the generations. Everything in our material existence contains Divine ‘sparks,’ i.e. spiritual energy, and we are charged with the mission to redeem and elevate these sparks, and thereby refine the material universe and transform it into its true purpose: a vehicle for spiritual expression.
Beginning with the enslavement by the Egyptian empire – the archetype and root (‘head’) of all the exiles and empires – each subsequent empire symbolizes another stage of refinement in integrating G-dliness into the material world. The process concludes with the refinement of the last two powers, Edom (Esau) and Ishmael, which leads to the Messianic age – a world where there is no more destruction and terror and all children of Abraham serve the One G-d of Abraham in peace and harmony.
Why was Abraham shown this vision? In order for him to share it with his children, so that we, at whatever point in history we may be living, should know that the events in our lives are part of a long historical process. Even ‘as the sun sets’ and a ‘deep dark dread’ strikes us, we must always hold onto Abraham’s vision, that all our journeys and challenges are part of a bigger process and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
This vision and promise is what the Jewish people held onto during their long hard years in Egyptian slavery. This dream is what they held onto during all other forms of persecution, and it is this vision that allowed them to prevail and thrive.
Abraham’s vision gives us not only strength and fortitude during difficult times, it also gives us direction how to proceed. Understanding the different dynamics of each empire/exile empowers us to be proactive and take action in order for us to refine that particular dimension of experience.
As we shudder in the shadow of September 11 and its aftermath, and we stand uncertain with what lies ahead if us, now is the time to embrace and connect to Abraham’s vision. Faith is the most powerful resource you can access when our security is threatened. Faith – to firmly hold onto G-d’s words that we shall prevail and “come out with great wealth.”
So, the first thing we can do in these trying times is to truly live with the times by reading, studying and living with the words in this weekly portion, personalizing and integrating them into our lives. By doing so we can connect to Abraham’s strength and G-d’s promise to him.
The second thing that we can do is not be a passive bystander waiting for something to happen. By recognizing that we are in the final steps of a process – a process that was shown to our great grandfather Abraham – we must discover what action is required of us in this particular step of the process, and then we must act. Being proactive means taking control of the situation rather than allowing it to control us.
What can and must we do in these particular times?
The Arizal (cited above) explains that the refinement of Edom and Ishmael – our work today – corresponds to the two emotions, netzach and hod, endurance and humility/acknowledgment. What does that mean in practical terms?
Netzach (literally “victory”) is the sheer determination to forge ahead despite the unknowns and doubts. That energy comes from a deep rooted belief in who you are and what you need to accomplish. Netzach means embracing what you believe in and not allowing anything to stop you from getting it. Hod (from the root of the Hebrew word “hoda’ah”) is the suprarational acknowledgment and commitment to that which is beyond us. Humility is modesty; it is recognizing how small you are which allows you to realize how large you can become. And that makes humility so formidable.
We are being terrorized with a negative netzach and hod (netzach and hod of kelipah) – a demonic force beyond rational that is ready to blindly die and kill innocent people in the name of its distorted faith, a passionate onslaught on our freedoms. The only long term way to counter this force is with positive netzach and hod – an equal if not stronger passionate embrace of our inner values.
This, is in addition of course, to the obvious need to defend ourselves and uproot any form of terrorism and those that support it. But defense is not enough. We must go on the offensive. Long term, the only solution for the birur of netzach and hod, the final steps before the revelation, is to transform it into a passionate spiritual revolution.
The work of earlier generations was more internal. Spiritually they were more evolved and naturally gravitated to G-d. Their minds and hearts were more attuned to spiritual experience, and they served G-d with deeply felt emotions.
Today our work is such, that even when we don’t have a revealed sense of G-dliness – our minds don’t easily relate to G-d and our hearts don’t naturally feel G-dliness, and on top of it all we live in a highly evolved materialistic world – we obstinately commit with suprarational tenacity and acknowledgement to fulfilling our mission to refine the world.
We may be small midgets relative to Abraham and the giants of history, but when we connect to their vision and climb onto their shoulders, we can see farther than they – like a midget on the shoulders of a giant.
After all the refinement accomplished by previous generations, we have the last part to do. Indeed all our ancestors wait and watch in Heaven for us to finish the last touches of what they began.
And when we do our job, we bring about the realization of Abraham’s vision, and from the “deep dark dread” Moshiach will sprout, ushering in a world of unity, where all of Abraham’s children serve one G-d, and serve in the way that Abraham taught them.
- Make a new commitment to a mitzvah (good deed), even if you are not in the mood of it, but you just know it’s right.
- Instead of being paralyzed, go out there and do something good. Initiate something – like a gathering in your home. Invite friends and do some reading and praying together.
- Find a cause and dedicate yourself to it with absolute passion and commitment, in a netzach type of way, enduring, lasting, unwavering.
- Take time each day to shut out all the outside static, and focus in and acknowledge (hod) G-d and the blessings in your life. A good time to do this is each morning, by saying the Modeh Ani, acknowledging G-d for returning your soul to you and blessing you with life and purpose. And again throughout the day in Modim, which is said in the Amidah prayers three times a day.
- Train your children to do the above. Remember: the best way to teach your children to not be afraid is to show that you are not afraid. The best way to show that is by being PROACTIVE. Take your emotions and channel them outward instead of allowing them to implode inward. Being passionately proactive is the best antidote to fear.
This life skills article is one of many services that we are providing in response to the September 11th atrocity perpetrated against humanity. We want you to know that all of us here at The Meaningful Life Center are working overtime to provide solace and clarity in these trying times. As people everywhere are undergoing a new soul search for finding meaning in life, we are redoubling our dedication to our mission to offer insight and direction to appreciate the deeper meaning of our lives and build security with all the uncertainty brewing around us.
If you or anyone you know has any specific needs or questions, please call on us. We are committed to doing everything we can to serve you.
Our ability to bring you more such vital services is entirely dependent on your financial support. We have established a special September 11 fund specifically dedicated to address the unique needs of our times. We urge you to make a donation to this fund and help us respond to the profound need today for clarity and direction.
We need to join together as never before to nourish the grass roots awakening that has consumed this nation and its gravitation to faith and G-d, and transform it into a permanent spiritual transformation. Our calling today is to demonstrate leadership and light up the way in which to forge ahead amidst this tragedy, and these new, challenging times.
Our sages teach us that by intensifying our charitable acts we open up new channels of blessings. In this spirit, may your commitment be a source of blessings in all aspects of your life.
We look forward to working together with you in this divine cause. Through our joint effort we can grow through this process and build a better world – a world where there is no evil and destruction because it is filled “with Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea.”
Phillip, Jason, Neria, Shoshana, Chani, Sarah, Yael, Eli
and of all us at The Meaningful Life Center
“Helping You Redefine What Truly Matters”
Our hearts, condolences and prayers go out to all the families directly affected by this calamity, and to all New Yorkers, Americans and the entire human race against whom this atrocity was perpetrated.
WHAT IS THE MOST POWERFUL THING YOU CAN DO IN RESPONSE TO SEPTEMBER 11?
Join us in creating a passionate spiritual revolution for the good.
As passions of violence have been released on us, against humanity, our most powerful response is to counter with a passionate revolution of purpose, with no less passion and drive than the evil being waged against us.
This is our mission at the Meaningful Life Center.
 Mechilta Yitro 9. Bereishis Rabba 44:17. Pirkei D’rebbi Eliezer ch. 28.
 Likkutei Torah and Sefer HaLikkutim Parshat Ki Teitzei.
 By no means does this suggest that the violence and dread perpetrated by people and nations is predestined; Abram’s vision only describes the forces and currents that will be unleashed. Maimonides and other commentaries explain why the Egyptians were punished for enslaving the Jews when G-d predestined it in His words to Abram.
 Explained at length in the Chassidic discourse titled Kol Dodi – 5668. 5709.