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?
- 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.
And G-D IS GOING TO WIN!
We are at war. Why are we not acting like we are at war?
Resolute, fierce, untiring, . . . , never forgetting, even for a short while: we are at war!
And G-d is going to win! It’s a culmination.
It’s all in the Torah.
Ishmael and Esau, The Arabs and the Europeans.
(Not Muslims, not all are now nor were you always Muslim . . . /Not Christians, not all are now nor were you always Christian . . .)
But Bnai Ishmael and Bnai Esau you are, were and will be.
Bnai Ishmael and Bnai Esau. . . Achim anachnu!
I am Yaakov, the son of Itzchak, the son of Avrohom . . .
It’s the culmination. And G-d is going to win!
Open your eyes. Our redemption has arrived!
I am Yaakov. I have survived as Yaakov. While you have adopted our way, more or less . . . you have evolved.
I have lived and died among you . . .
I have been persecuted, humiliated, reviled . . . among you.
I have maintained my adherence to the Torah, from which we learn who we are, and from where we come . . .
And we are the children of Yaakov, the son of Itzchak, the son of Avrohom, the Hebrew; the one from the Torah;
the one chosen by G-d, that his seed and his seed’s seed should inherit the land. True, the people of India, China and other peoples of mostly Asia may disagree, (and they do account for a sizeable chunk of humanity . . . but more of that at another time.)
Nonetheless . . . we are Bnai Avrohom: Ishmael and Itzchak;
And more ……we are Bnai Itzchak: Esau and Yaakov.
And Yaakov received from both Avrohom and Itzchak…
Ishmael did not receive from Itzchak, and the children of Esau don’t even know they are Bnai Esau, …
But I know who I am. I am Yaakov, the keeper of the faith.
He is G-d, the one and only. Before who and before who’s glorious Torah I bow at all times.
Until we were ready to accept our rightful place, we were persecuted, humiliated . . . and now that we are ready, when we can live in our homes, secure in our connection to G-d, then we are connected to the land, the Holy Land, bequeathed to us by our Father in Heaven, through the covenant with Avrohom and the promise to Itzchak and the promise to Yaakov… Moshe… Aharon… Yosef… Dovid HaMelech. And we are here to declare:
The Time of Our Redemption Has Arrived.
We have lived, long, these many generations amongst you, Ishmael and Esau, as “Sefardi” and “Ashkenazi”. Faring not much better amongst either of you. Yet this has been our mazel, our fate.
But with assimilation comes annihilation . . . and then Yaakov would be no more. But as we have maintained our connection to the Torah, to the Land and to each other, we have maintained our connection to our G-d, who is our (plural to include our brethren) G-d.
And for this we must celebrate, not look to kill each other . . .
For our redemption signifies also your redemption.
For our redemption is a redemption for all peoples. . . and those closer to the source will receive first and of the chosen parts.
And our war, real and intense, is an internal war. . .
And G-d is going to win!
such words of wisdom. strangely I’ve been talking about faith this week to my religious muslim amd atheist colleagues…no coincidence I guess
I’ll will do my best to apply your suggestion actions
Thank you for this beautiful article! May we all come to see each other as God’s precious children!
Surely I cannot agree with this conclusion 1)Is there enough time not to tell Gods wrath on disobedience?
2) Why with love can you not help people by telling the treasure you discovered to meet the ONY ONE Elohim AND WAS MISLEAD FOR YEARS by CHURCHES? 3) I CAN NOT PRETEND AND COMPROMIZE THAT IS NOT HONEST.
4)Eseg 3: 17-27 tells exactly to warn People against doing and believing what God does not want.
5) Pinchas and Elieser are two examples how they felt because people did not honour YHVH!!
The spirited commentary on the shiur is fine indeed…. but rather incorrect. For without understanding differences, one cannot assess how to disbelieve what might be against the Torah, or even common sense. Such is the ‘Jihad’ of Islam. Unlike all the other religions, all the other utopianisms, that have at times lead to subjugation and worse, much much worse, as in Christianity in the past, Islam’s ‘Jihadism’ is indeed its call to subjugate all others everywhere, for all time. No… all muslims don’t act upon this, but the ‘Jihadists’ do, and they, are the penultimate believers according to Islams prophet, Mohammed, and all their commentators, and all the history- the some 280millions of humans slaughtered on the alter of Islam. Christianity subjugation, was due to it’s call for religion, it’s belief that all would be best served their ‘good news’ and althought their messiah didn’t actually command any such subjugation, since it is a human utopian system, it did fail and caused much subjugation and death. Islam’s is worse. It doesn’t have any golden rule, and can’t ever change it’s ‘Jihad’ commands to subjugate all others, everywhere, for all time.
Now, this doesn’t mean be negative to muslims. It means that one should be aware and learn what the differences are in belief, and faith, and understand the terrible consequences of not doing just that work. A jihadist will point to the most severe of punishments in the Torah and demand that the Torah itself has been distorted by the rabbi’s and their own koran is the only true word of g-d and that subjugating all others is commanded by g-d, etc etc etc. Be aware.
I will include a commentary by a Sufi ‘master’, on the muslim command to collect taxes from non believers. This is an odious, oppressive amount, and not for the ‘protection of dhimmi(jews and christians) but rather a severe ‘mafia’ like oppressive taxation for the permission to even live. He, the sufi ‘master’ in the 18th century spells out the meaning of
‘Jizya’ the taxing and what it actually represents. This is a ‘master’ of the mystical version of Islam, often referred too as closest in spiritual meaning to other religions, but please read carefully, and thoroughly and look it up yourself. It is not some rare cherry picked anomaly, it is the basic belief of Mohammed, and the Sharia.
the 18th century Moroccan Sufi “master” Ibn Ajibah from his Koranic commentary. Describing unabashedly the purpose of the humiliating Koranic poll tax  (as per Koran 9:29 ) of submission for non-Muslims brought under Islamic hegemony by jihad, Ibn Ajibah makes clear the ultimate goal of its imposition was to achieve what he called the death of the “soul”, through the dhimmi’s execution of their own humanity:
[The dhimmi] is commanded to put his soul, good fortune and desires to death. Above all he should kill the love of life, leadership and honor. [The dhimmi] is to invert the longings of his soul, he is to load it down more heavily than it can bear until it is completely submissive. Thereafter nothing will be unbearable for him. He will be indifferent to subjugation or might. Poverty and wealth will be the same to him; praise and insult will be the same; preventing and yielding will be the same; lost and found will be the same. Then, when all things are the same, it [the soul] will be submissive and yield willingly what it should give. [Tafsir ibn ‘Ajibah. Commentary on Q9:29. Ahmad ibn Muhammad Ibn ‘Ajibah]