Does Ishmael Hate Isaac?

Sermon delivered October 22, 2010, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


The Middle East conflict is one of the most frustrating phenomena of our modern world. To greater and lesser degrees, each of the last several Presidents has made a priority of bringing peace to that region, beset with constant violence. We would be forgiven if we merely shrugged at the recent peace negotiations, suspended soon after they began. Our memories teach us not to be hopeful. We gazed upon a glorious signing ceremony on the White House lawn in 1993. Peace nearly broke out again at Camp David ten years ago. Each time, though, increased violence followed. Our brothers and sisters in Israel seem to be further than ever from the dream of a secure, peaceful existence. The Palestinian people seem no closer to achieving their goal of national sovereignty. Now, more than ever, world peace seems to hang in the balance.

When the topic of Middle East peace is raised, one will often hear that we cannot expect these parties to reconcile. We are told that Jews and Arabs have been enemies for millennia, warring since the very founding of these people, in conflict from the time that a common ancestor, Abraham, gave birth to both peoples.

The facts of history, though, are much more complicated. Throughout the broad sweep of the Middle Ages, for more than a millennium, Jews lived in Diaspora. We were subject to Christians in Europe, and we were subject to Islam in North Africa and the Middle East. Neither situation was ideal. There is a very good reason that Jews in every land and in each century prayed for Messianic redemption, to return to the Promised Land, to live under the sovereignty of none but God and the Jewish people. That being said, there was a difference between Jewish life in the Christian world and Jewish life under Muslim dominion.

The example of Spain is instructive: While the Muslim Moors ruled Spain, the Jewish people mostly flourished, achieving a golden age of religious thought and poetry, with unusual security and prosperity. When the Church reestablished its dominion in Spain, our people faced the Inquisition. Christian Spain in 1492 offered the Jewish people a stark choice: kneel at the Baptismal font or flee the land that our people had called home for centuries. When Jews did leave Spain, they typically went to lands that remained under Muslim rule, where Jewish life generally flowered. All that is not to say that life was ideal for Jews under Islam. In the Muslim world, we were second class citizens. We did face pogroms and persecution even in Muslim countries, but nothing to compare with the constant expulsions and ultimate genocide of Christian Europe.

Moreover, Jews always lived among Muslims in Palestine itself. Perhaps we were no more than a tolerated minority, but that is more than can be said for Jewish life in Europe.

Everything changed in the 20th Century. After the Holocaust, the Christian world repented. We modern Jews enjoy unprecedented relations with our Christian neighbors in America and around the world. Meanwhile, the Arab and Muslim world rejected large-scale Jewish settlement of Palestine. When Israel declared its independence, the Arab world attacked. Life became unbearable for Jews in almost every Muslim country. Today, almost no Jews remain in the Muslim world.

There is no denying that the Muslim world is united against Israel today. We should not be Pollyanna: A terrifying and controlling segment of the Muslim world today is bent on the destruction of Israel, indeed of the entire western world. The United States, Israel, and our friends face a perilous threat from Iran, from al-Qaeda, and from their allies in the Palestinian community and throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds. Other forces accept the reality of a Jewish State of Israel, and seek to establish an adjacent Palestinian State.

Israel faces a difficult decision. Shall the Jewish State make concessions, trusting that sovereignty will inspire Palestinians to live peacefully with Israel? Or is the Jewish State more secure without making territorial concessions. Do the Israelis have a partner in a peace process? Or are Arabs and Muslims immutably wedded to hatred of Jews and Israel?

In many ways, the questions go back to Abraham. Our patriarch and his wife, Sarah, reach old age without bearing any children. Finally, Sarah encourages Abraham to have relations with her maid-servant, an Egyptian woman named Hagar. A son is born, and he is given a Hebrew name, Ishmael, meaning “God will hear.” Later, in this week’s Torah portion, Sarah and Abraham are blessed with a son in their old age, Yitzhak, or Isaac. Yitzhak is based on the word “laugh,” recalling that Sarah laughs when she is told that she will bear a son at age 90.

After Isaac is weaned, Sarah sees Ishmael playing; as a result, she demands his expulsion along with his mother. The Torah is not clear about what Ishmael has done that so upsets Sarah. The verb is m’tzahek, translated as “playing” or “making sport,” and is based on the same word as Yitzhak, Isaac’s name, “laugh.” Sarah goes on to say that Ishmael “will not inherit with my son.” Perhaps Ishmael has made fun of Isaac, lording over him the fact that, in the ancient world, the oldest son would be his father’s principal heir.

Hundreds of years after our people received the Torah, the ancient Rabbis struggled with the meaning of the word m’tzahek. What exactly did Ishmael do? They find other places in the Bible where that same verb is used. In one instance, the word seems to refer to idolatry. Perhaps Ishmael is playing around with idols. Another biblical passages uses m’tzahek to refer to sexual immorality. The Rabbis suggest that Ishmael might have been abusing Isaac sexually. Finally, the Rabbis point to an instance of the word m’tzahek applying to archery. They imagine that Ishmael is shooting arrows at Isaac, attempting to kill him.

Why would the Rabbis suggest that Ishmael has committed such treacherous, hateful acts?

The Rabbis are defending Sarah and even God. When we read the story in the Torah, if we imagine that Ishmael is only “playing,” we will judge Sarah unjust. How could she insist on the expulsion of the child and his mother on such a flimsy pretext? Moreover, God tells Abraham to do what Sarah asks. Surely, God would not condone an injustice.

We may also want to think about the Rabbis’ own lives. 2000 years ago, the non-Jewish world was not hospitable to Jews. We’re talking about a period when Christianity was new and Islam had not been founded. The Rabbis were not reacting to either of these religious traditions. However, their experience with non-Jews was generally one of being hated. The Rabbis would naturally imagine that the first Jewish child would have been treated harshly and hatefully, by his gentile half-brother.

Later, Ishmael is understood to be the father of the Arab people. Ishmael is to Arabs as Abraham is to Jews. Ishmael is an important figure in Islam, too. The Koran takes most of the important stories about Isaac, including the akeida, the Binding of Isaac, and adapts those stories as tales about Ishmael. Just as the ancient Rabbis were subjected to poor treatment by their neighbors, Israel and its people have been repeatedly attacked by Arabs and Muslims. Therefore, we may easily accept that Ishmael treated our patriarch Isaac treacherously, just as his descendants have abused Israelis.

But let us explore more than one way to think about the story, both ancient and modern. Perhaps we do not have to imagine that Ishmael hates Isaac. Indeed, Torah tells us that, when Abraham dies, the two half-brothers come together to bury their father. No ill feeling is reported on that occasion. No murder is attempted, no idolatry suggested.

The scholar Amy-Jill Levine asks us to look at another story about Sarah, this one from last week’s Torah portion. Soon after arriving in the Promised Land, Abraham and Sarah leave for Egypt, escaping a famine. Abraham is afraid. His wife is beautiful; and in that world, the Pharaoh could have any woman he might desire. Perhaps Pharaoh will kill Abraham so that he may have his way with Sarah. Abraham asks Sarah to claim that she is his sister, not his wife. Pharaoh does indeed desire Sarah, and he takes her into his house. Ultimately, God intervenes to save our matriarch. But Levine asks us to consider the terror that Sarah has experienced in Egypt. Alone, parted from her husband, Sarah does not know from the outset that she will be rescued. Sarah is traumatized. Later, she understandably lashes out at everything Egyptian. When she sees the Egyptian maidservant’s son playing, her temper is short. She insists that the boy and his Egyptian mother be expelled. God understands that Sarah’s post-traumatic stress is real. Asking Sarah to continue living with these Egyptians in her family is too much. God therefore instructs Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. But the boy and his mother are not at fault. Why else would God promise Abraham that Ishmael will become the father of a great nation?

The Jewish people came to Palestine traumatized by the persecutions of Christian Europe, terrorized by the Holocaust. We understandably suffer the most dramatic post-traumatic stress. From the dawn of modern Zionism to the present, most of us have not recognized the pain and dislocation that Israel brought to the Palestinian people. And we cannot deny that Arabs and Muslims have reined terror down upon Israel.

Amy-Jill Levine asks us to look closely at the fact that Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father. The brothers move beyond the suspicions and ill-treatment that marked the relationship between their mothers and their own childhood. They gather peacefully to honor their father.

Notably, Torah does not suggest that Isaac and Ishmael settle down together after the funeral. Coexistence is peaceful, but it is separate.

Let us pray that Ishmael does not hate Isaac. Let us assure that Isaac does not hate Ishmael. Let us hope that, one day, the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Isaac will come together, transcending the suspicions and ill-treatment of the modern world. Perhaps Christian-Jewish relations, so radically repaired since the Holocaust, may serve as an example to Muslims and Jews, to Arabs and Israelis, today. Let the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael recall the peaceful coexistence in our shared history. Let that peace be in our future.

Amen.