In this week’s Torah portion we meet Ishmael.
It is astounding how the contemporary world reflects the world of the Book of Genesis. “Ma’ase avos siman l’banim! - The deeds of the fathers are a sign for the children!” In the Torah portion of Lech Lecha, we witness the birth of the Jewish People at precisely the same moment as we are introduced to Ishmael, our primordial antagonist.
At this very moment, as I sit before my computer in the Holy City of Jerusalem, I hear sirens. Within the last weeks there have been multiple stabbings and murders. The Land is running with Jewish blood. And who is behind it? This very same Ishmael whom we meet in Parshas Lech Lecha. “And he will be pe’re adam … a wild ass of a man. His hand is in everything and everyone’s hand is against him…” (Genesis 16:12).
I have a theory about Ishmael. An animal is one thing. He has no problems with self-image, because he doesn’t think. We expect him to act like an animal.
A man, on the other hand, possesses a soul and his nature is to try to elevate himself above the material world in order to serve his Creator.
But Ishmael is different. Ishmael has just enough intelligence to understand that he is mostly animal. For that reason he hates his very essence because he knows how much of an animal he is. Thus, he becomes an eternal contradiction, unhappy as an animal who is partly man and unhappy as a man who is partly animal. In his self-loathing, he lashes out at the entire world, even his own brethren – even himself! – trying to destroy everything in his path. And the Jew, the epitome of the man who has learned to rise above his animal nature, he hates the most.
“At the end of days, Israel will be in the exile of Ishmael… and this exile will be more difficult than the others. The Ishmaelites will go from being tent-dwelling desert nomads to ruling over the entire world and Israel, and they will cause us unprecedented grief. They will seek to wipe us off the face of the earth, and without Divine intervention, they would be able to implement their murderous designs. At that time, we will cry out to G-d and He will hear our cries and prayers. Hence the name ‘Ishmael,’ composed of two words, ‘Yishma’ and ‘Keil,’ meaning ‘G-d will hear,’ according to the Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer (32)” (Rabbi Chaim Vital, as quoted by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz in Yated Ne’eman articles written during 2006 and 2009).
It is clear, my friends, that we have entered the exile of Ishmael. Soon will come the Redemption, but the question is, how do we survive during the interim? Rabbi Lipschutz’ quotation continues:
“What is happening now with the offspring of Ishmael is preordained. In order for us to prevail over Ishmael, we must raise our voices in prayer. His name does not hint that if we are strong and battle him with chivalry, we will defeat him. His name does not hint that if we engage him in diplomacy, we will outwit him. His name proclaims that the only way to defeat him is through prayer.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Rashi cites the Midrash which says, “it is true that Abram shall have no son who inherits him, but Abraham shall have a son. Likewise, Sarai shall not give birth, but Sarah shall give birth. I shall give you different names… (Rashi to Genesis 15:5).
G-d seems to be telling Abraham that when we merit to change ourselves so that our entire life is dedicated to serving Him, He will not only change our names but He will lift us above nature, so that the fate of flesh and blood is not our fate. We will live forever in the world of spirituality and in the Divine Presence.
In complete contrast, Ishmael is trying to bring the entire world under the control of his animal nature. If we want to stop this onslaught, then – in the words of Rabbi Chaim Vital – we will not succeed through “battle” or “diplomacy.” We will succeed only through prayer, pouring out our hearts to the Master of the Universe. Just as Abraham and Sarah had to become new people in order to merit Isaac and stop the hegemony of Ishmael, so we have to become new people in order to rid ourselves of the curse of Ishmael.
In short, we have to take the “pe’re adam” - the wild ass of a man - out of us! The pe’re adam is a fanatic for the fulfillment of his animal desires, a fanatic for violence and a fanatic for destruction. We have to imitate our Father Abraham and our Mother Sarah. We have to make sure that Ishmael’s personality traits cannot be found within ourselves.
Sinas chinom – unwarranted hatred between Jew and Jew – has caused this exile. It is our fault and no one else’s fault. Although the nations bear responsibility for all their actions and will receive what is coming to them, it is only through our deficiencies that they have power to harm us. In these terrible trials, this “most difficult exile”, we must learn the lesson of accepting responsibility. We must understand, my friends, that our own behavior is being reflected in the actions of our enemies.
G-d promises Abraham, “Indeed your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you shall call his name Isaac, and I will fulfill My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant…” (Genesis 17:19). When we defeat our internal enemies, G-d will save us from our external enemies and we will see the day which is described in the Lecha Dodi Sabbath prayer: “May your oppressor be downtrodden and may those who devoured you be cast far off. Your G-d will rejoice over you like a groom rejoicing over his bride.”