30 Jan

Chapter 09: The Birth of Isaac and the Expulsion of Ishmael

9.1 The Birth of Isaac

(1) And HaShem remembered Sarah as He had said, and HaShem did unto Sarah as He had spoken. (2) And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which G-d had spoken to him. (3) And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. (4) And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as G-d had commanded him. (5) And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him.

After the story of Sodom showed Abraham that hesed alone does not suffice, and the episode with Abimelech partially taught him to act within the category of gevura, Abraham becomes capable of fathering Isaac.

The Torah does not specify where in the country Abraham’s family was living at the time. From verse 14 we can conclude that after solving the problems with Abimelech, Abraham left Gerar and relocated to the Beer Sheba region. A more detailed discussion of this topic will be given in later sections.

Isaac is the first child to be circumcised at the prescribed time on the eighth day. Compared to Abraham, Isaac is on a higher level because he lives within the framework of a covenant with God from the very beginning. This is a huge merit, but also the source of a problem: when someone develops independently, overcomes a long journey and then attains the covenant with God on his own, this covenant is a huge accomplishment. But for someone born into the framework of the covenant, this is not an achievement. Therefore, for a “righteous man, son of a righteous man,” it is always difficult not to lose previous accomplishments and all the more so enrich them with new ones.

Isaac resolves this problem by limiting the category of gevura. As we will see further, this restriction process is connected with laughter and to Isaac’s name, which literally means “he will laugh.”

9.2 The Laughter Surrounding Isaac

(6) And Sarah said: ‘G-d hath made laughter for me; every one that heareth will laugh on account of me.’ (7) And she said: ‘Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should give children suck? for I have borne him a son in his old age.’ (8) And the child grew, and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

Sarah says that people will laugh at her (or, more precisely, “with her”) but there is nothing negative about this: everyone who sees this will begin laughing out of joy, due to a reminder that it is possible for a miracle to intervene in our lives.

In this situation, Sarah is no longer embarrassed by her laughter and understands that, even earlier, her laughter was justified.

Sarah represents the category of gevura within Abraham. Therefore, for her, a miracle is a reason to laugh. Her personal advancement consists of believing in miracles, in other words, learning to laugh.

Isaac, whose main task is preserving tradition (and this is also the category of gevura), is also connected with laughter. By preserving tradition he teaches us to laugh at ourselves, our excessive righteousness, and even our customs and tradition, and such laughter overcomes an “excessive category of gevura.”

It is vital to laugh at one’s own serious religious convictions because all of our perceptions of the universe are true only to a certain extent; they cannot be absolutely true. Our understanding of the Torah as well is also always imperfect—it always has some defects. One cannot relate to one’s ideas and convictions with fanatic seriousness. If one does not laugh at them sometimes, one could easily die from one’s own dullness.

9.3 Ishmael’s Mocking Laughter

(9) And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport.

However, everything is not so simple about laughter. Abraham’s laughter, Sarah’s laughter, and God’s laughter (“G-d hath made laughter for me”) are all positive. But when we reach Ishmael’s laughter, his laughter is so evil that it causes Ishmael to be banished from his home. This is the time to distinguish between proper and improper laughter.

As we have already noted, laughter is the overcoming of the category of gevura, a way out beyond the limits of the law (the Hebrew tzhok is associated with “tze hok,” literally, go beyond the law), beyond the bounds of norms and properness. This situation is one in which a person sees an unexpected turn of events, when something happens not as he expected, and in this “unexpected” turn of events the person sees more harmony and beauty, more sense and spirituality, than if everything had occurred according to the natural order of things. Happiness that stems from the overcoming of the expected order of things is expressed through laughter. On the other hand, an egress beyond the limits of norms and righteousness is problematic because whereas one can rise above the level of norms, there is also the possibility of falling below it. It is imperative that we learn to differentiate between the laughter of a righteous man—rising above the law, and that of a villain—falling below it.

Isaac spreads precisely this ability of distinguishing between proper and improper laughter to the world. Isaac is connected not just to laughter, but to laughter oriented towards the future. The name Isaac means “he will laugh,” in the future tense. Laughter completely oriented towards the present is the laughter of evil.

Proper laughter emerges from the ability to see the harmony of the world that exists above simple logic. He who is able to laugh at himself, such as Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, can laugh also at the world, with positive laughter (it is partly because of this that “Jewish anecdotes” consist of Jews laughing at themselves; this is essential for a nation to survive). But improper laughter is a mocking joke, a desire to destroy somebody with one’s laughter. This is how people act who are incapable of laughing at themselves. And Ishmael’s laughter is of this kind.

This laughter is destructive for the one who laughs and for those around him, and this is why Ishmael must be exiled.

Wherefore she said unto Abraham: ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.’ (21:10)

Sarah connects Ishmael’s behavior, specifically his derision of Isaac, with his being the “son of this bondwoman.” The desire to laugh at others is one of the characteristics of a slave psychology.

The word metzahek used to describe Ishmael’s behavior is a verb in the present tense. Mocking laughter is always in the present tense, because its essence is laughing at the future, at unrealized hopes. Isaac’s laughter is of a different kind: it is directed at the future, with hope for the future, as if to say: we will laugh again, don’t despair, everything will be alright. Reality is never ideal, and so hope for the future is the source of good. Consequently, destruction of this hope is the source of evil.

The Midrash notes that in the Tanakh the verb metzahek (to mock, to make fun of) has a connotation of adultery (Genesis 39:17), idolatry (Exodus 32:60), and murder (II Samuel 2:14). Hence, this word can serve as an indication of the danger emanating from Ishmael which explains why Sarah chose to take such harsh measures.

9.4 Expulsion as a Method of Re-educating Ishmael

We have already discussed that the relationship between Ishmael and Isaac (Islam and Judaism) differs from that of Jacob and Esau (Judaism and Christianity). Jacob and Esau have both a mother and a father in common–they are full brothers. The question is only about who was “first,” who has the birthright. In either case, the second remains a full brother to the first and a member of the family. Isaac and Ishmael are in a different situation: if Isaac, the wife’s son, exists, then Ishmael, the son of the slave-woman, is not an heir at all. Thus, unlike Esau who recognizes Jacob, recognizing Isaac is very problematic for Ishmael.

The consequences of this difference are very significant. For example, Christianity recognizes that the Tanakh is a Divine book, the foundation of a common Judeo-Christian civilization, and its disagreement with Judaism consists of how to properly understand this text. For Christianity, the Torah, the Temple, and Jewish history and tradition are all important—the controversy revolves around the question of who has the birthright. Ishmael has a different approach: while recognizing Abraham, Moses, and David as prophets, Islam tries to take them away from Judaism by declaring them “Muslims” or “proto-Muslims” (“ancient monotheists”), but not “Jews.” The Tanakh, in Islam’s opinion, is an erroneous book, because the Jews have distorted the original covenant. The idea is widespread among Muslims that a Jewish kingdom in the Holy Land and a Temple on the Temple Mount never existed. (For this reason they fight against any factual evidence of Jewish history, for instance by hindering Jewish excavations on the Temple Mount.)

Ishmael, a lunar civilization, lives in many ways in an imaginary world. The only way to rectify Ishmael’s mocking laughter directed at Isaac is by exiling him from the family, giving him the opportunity to confront reality alone, without Isaac’s presence.

This is why Sarah wanted to exile Ishmael, for it had become the only method of setting Ishmael on the right path and of protecting Isaac from his influence.

9.5 Development within the Hierarchy

Ishmael could not remain in Abraham’s family, and this was not inevitable from the very beginning: Isaac’s birth in and of itself did not in any way have to lead to Ishmael’s exile. Had Ishmael been able to recognize his status (not the highest but also by far not the lowest), had he been able to recognize his intermediate position in the framework of the family hierarchy and learn to behave accordingly, everything would have been alright. Hagar stands as an example of this idea: as long as she acknowledged her place in the family and recognized her job as Sarah’s slave, she not only received permission to continue living in Abraham’s house, but was even bestowed a special Divine blessing. As soon as she stops recognizing Sarah as her mistress, she is banished. The same is true of Ishmael: if he recognizes Isaac’s birthright, his life is normalized, but if he cannot accept it, he must be exiled from the family. Essentially, Ishmael is expelled for a psychological inability to take the place in which he could be constructive, and becomes a destructive force as a result.

The essence of destructiveness is an inability to accept one’s designated place. This place must not, by any means, be the boss’s chair—not every person can or should lead. A situation in which an unfit candidate takes the helm will not only fail, but will also prevent him from taking his proper place. The place which is truly yours in life is the place where you bring a positive development into the world. In this place, you will live happily and pleasantly, and others will relate to you accordingly, since you change the world for the better.

In the given situation, Ishmael could not receive his share in Abraham’s heritage, but it was not because he was not allowed to do so, but only because he did not know how to realize that which was truly meant for him. Sarah does not want to deprive Ishmael of his portion, but believes that since Ishmael is incapable of inheriting the part befitting him as long as he lives next to Isaac, he must be exiled.

9.6 Why Ishmael had to be born before Isaac

The conflict between Ishmael and Isaac occurred because Ishmael was born earlier and Isaac pushes him out, depriving Ishmael of his status as firstborn. Had Ishmael been the younger, there would have been no conflict. In this case, what was the purpose of having the older son be born to a slave-woman, and not to Sarah; what is the spiritually justification of this conflict ?

On the one hand, the fact that Ishmael was born first was the result of Sarah’s mistake because she did not believe in the future birth of her own son, and therefore gave her slave-woman, Hagar, to Abraham as a concubine. But on the other hand, it was apparently very important for Abraham to go through the experience of conflicting with Ishmael and then exiling him. As a result of this experience, Abraham understood that it was impossible to build the chosen people on Egypt’s foundation. He had to personally reject the Egyptian option, since one can wholeheartedly discard an option only if one has personally tried it and felt its improperness. In some sense, this was a “mistake which was impossible not to make.” (In the terminology of the Kabbala, Ishmael’s birth and upbringing were tied to a “shell” from which Abraham had to free himself for Isaac to be born.)

In the same way, it was psychologically necessary for Sarah to follow the erroneous path by giving Hagar to Abraham, because this was the only way she could overcome her excessive gevura.

In life, there are mistakes which have to be made and it is from this type of mistakes that we must learn our lessons. And although the historical price for these lessons is fairly high, we cannot do without them.

9.7 Sarah corrects Abraham

(11) And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight on account of his son. (12) And G-d said unto Abraham: ‘Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee. (13) And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.’

For Abraham, “his son” is Ishmael (verse 11). But God corrects him: Ishmael is only “seed”; Isaac is the son (verse 13). God not only supports Sarah’s position here, but also instructs Abraham “in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice.”

Sarah insists on Ishmael’s exile because it is impossible to properly raise Isaac without banishing Ishmael. In her eyes, all other concerns—Abraham’s vision of passing on something important to the surrounding world through Ishmael or Hagar, which in itself is a positive thing—instantly recedes to the background, if Isaac and the survival of the Jewish people are at stake.

Sarah’s position corrects the mistakes in Abraham’s worldview, and this is her role—one of the most important roles in the family. Abraham aims for universality, commonality—he is the father of many nations. He loves Ishmael also because he is Ishmael’s father. But Sarah redirects Abraham from this general approach to a concrete mission: the creation of a Jewish people. She represents the force that helps Abraham focus on the main goal and, at least temporarily, leave everything else on the side.

God confirms Ishmael’s important role in history. However, Ishmael’s mission can be accomplished only after Isaac’s potential is realized. (In particular, this principle was manifested when the Arabs, Ishmael’s descendants, forgot Abraham’s monotheism until Muhammad reminded them about it, relying on the Jewish, and not the Muslim, tradition.) For this reason, priority must be given to Isaac’s upbringing.

9.8 Islam as a Counterbalance to Western Civilization

Abraham was promised two things: that a covenant would be made with his offspring, and that his offspring would be as numerous as the “sands on the seashore.” This phrase is repeated in the Torah several times, but at some point they are disconnected: the covenant is for Isaac, and numerousness is passed down to Ishmael. Since Abraham accented his relationship with Ishmael, an important part of the Divine promise was bestowed to him.

Ishmael’s numerousness is not purely a quantitative phenomenon; it is also important in a spiritual sense. Islam has an important role in influencing and rectifying the world. In particular, Islam counterbalances some twisted principles in Christian civilization: for example, it professes a purer form of monotheism.

Islam contains important positive ideas, and as long as the West cannot “extract” them from Islam and integrate them into its own culture, it will not be able to defeat Islam. This is actually a classic situation in spiritual wars: to achieve victory, it is necessary to understand the enemy’s positive aspects, isolate them, identify their relationship with your own basic values, and then correct yourself with the help of these foreign, but positive, qualities. Only then will victory be possible.

9.9 Hagar wanders in the Desert

(14) And Abraham arose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away; and she departed, and strayed in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. (15) And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. (16) And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. (17) And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her: ‘What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. (18) Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast by thy hand; for I will make him a great nation.’

The Torah repeatedly says Abraham “rose early in the morning” and usually this emphasizes his hesed. But this time, Abraham rises early in the morning not to offer a kindness to someone close to him, but to exile Hagar and her son, that is, to display gevura.

The Midrash adds that, having left Abraham’s home, Hagar decided to return to her previous world, to Egypt. Had she reached her destination, she would have lost the spiritual level she had attained in Abraham’s house. However, she gets lost, not only physically, but also spiritually-psychologically; she gives up hope of correcting the situation, and therefore abandons her child.

Hagar cannot help Ishmael, but he can help himself. He is 15-18 years old at this point, and is entirely independent. Ishmael was exiled for his own misconduct and not that of his mother.

The Torah says: “And God heard the voice of the lad,” that is, Ishmael makes himself heard, and God hears him. A person can bring salvation to himself only independently. To be saved, he must pray for himself and actively correct the situation, and not think someone else’s prayer will be better than his own. Ishmael “gave voice”—he recognized that he had been in the wrong. At the level he was at, this “giving voice” was enough to put him in a position where he could be saved.

9.10 Ishmael saves Himself

(19) And G-d opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.

Hagar was ruined not because there was no well. The well existed, but she did not see it because she had gotten “lost” in the desert, turned towards Egypt, and so could no longer see the surrounding reality correctly.

Hagar is psychologically dependent. The breakaway from Abraham’s home is catastrophic for her. Ishmael has an opposite personality: he can learn to see the world correctly only if he is exiled and left in the desert alone with reality. Only when he cannot blame his problems on anyone else (as he could in Abraham’s home) does he begin to see the real order of things. Because Ishmael feels despair and turns to God for help, salvation comes for Hagar as well: she sees the well, and they survive.

9.11 Abraham’s Universalism

(20)And G-d was with the lad, and he grew; and he dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. (21) And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.

Having settled in the desert, separate from Isaac, Ishmael found his true self and took up his proper place in life. Only then does he receive Divine support. Now Ishmael can recognize the hierarchy and his subordinate role in relation to Isaac: for one who has self-realized, this is not problematic. Later on we will see that at Abraham’s funeral, Ishmael will be alongside Isaac but second to him (25:9). This means that in principle, there are no problems with Ishmael if he is kept within firm limits. Otherwise he begins to mistakenly lay claims to a position that is not his and destroys the world.

The Midrash tells us that Abraham never lost contact with Ishmael and continued to be in touch with him even after he was banished. He visited his son’s tent to see whom he had taken as a wife and how he was doing. Abraham continued to remain “the father of a multitude of nations,” continued to possess universality. He is not only the forefather of the Jews, but also the spiritual founder of the entire world. Therefore, he takes care of the entire world and in particular, passes part of his legacy to the entire world through Ishmael.

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