Become who you are!

Ishmael tried to be Isaac – even as his descendants today try to usurp Isaac’s inheritance. But there can only be one Isaac, the real one.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Last week, Parashat Vayeira concluded with the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah.

This week, Parashat Chayyei Sarah continues with the death of Sarah and Abraham’s purchasing the Machpelah Cave in Hevron as her burial-ground. Immediately afterwards, Abraham sent “his servant, the elder of his household” (Genesis 24:2) to Aram Naharayyim (“Aram of the Two Rivers”), lying between the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris, “the city of Nachor” (Genesis 24:10), to Abraham’s birthplace and kin, to find a wife for his son Isaac.

Though the Torah does not tell us who this servant was, several Talmudic and Midrashic sources (Targum Yonatan ad. loc., Yoma 28b, Bereishit Rabbah 60:7, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 16, et. al.) identify this servant as Eliezer of Damascus, who is mentioned by name only once in the Torah, just before the Covenant between the Parts when Abram referred to “the steward of my house, Eliezer of Damascus” (Genesis 15:2).

Since Abraham was 70 years old at the time of the Covenant between the Parts [1]  and at least 137 at the time when he dispatched Eliezer[2], Eliezer had been his faithful servant for over two-thirds of a century. The Torah gives no indication how long Eliezer had served Abraham before the Covenant between the Parts; but since Eliezer was already the steward of Abraham’s house, he must have already been in his service for a considerable amount of time.

By the time of Parashat Chayyei Sarah, Eliezer had risen to the level of being in charge of all that Abraham had (Genesis 24:2).

After such a long time in Abraham’s service, he had proven himself to be utterly loyal and devoted to his master, utterly trustworthy, unstintingly faithful to any mission that Abraham might charge him with.

Thus Abraham knew that he could entrust the choice of his son’s wife – the very future of the Jewish nation, no less! – to Eliezer’s hands.

And Eliezer discharged his mission magnificently.

The distance from Canaan to Aram Naharayyim is some 1,335 km (830 miles) as the crow flies, which means crossing the Arabian Desert. The journey, following the Great Fertile Crescent, is maybe three times that. Eliezer of Damascus made that journey with “ten of his master’s camels...and his master’s choicest wealth” (Genesis 24:1); if he followed the Great Fertile Crescent (which in those days would have been probable), then he travelled through Damascus, the town of his birth.

The temptation to pocket that enormous wealth, to abscond with this fabulous treasure, to return to the place of his youth, to live a life of luxury, might well have corrupted a lesser man.

But Eliezer was devoted to his master Abraham beyond suspicion, loyal and true, infinitely above any temptation or corruption, with no thought of his own reward or gain.

So much so that when he finally reached Aram Naharayyim and found Rebecca, when he discerned that she was the maiden for whom he had travelled this long and wearying path, when she invited him back to her family’s house – he refused even to eat a single morsel or to drink so much as a cup of water until he had delivered Abraham’s message and discharged his obligation (Genesis 24:33).

Who was Eliezer and whence came he? From what source was a man of such sterling character suckled?

Surprisingly – nay, shockingly – Eliezer was the son of none other than Nimrod (Targum Yonatan to Genesis 14:14; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 16; Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 109( – Nimrod “the mighty hunter”, the son of Cush (Genesis 10:8-9); Nimrod, the tyrant who ordered the Tower of Babel to be built in order to enslave the whole of humanity (Genesis 11:1-9; Hullin 89a; Yalkut Shimoni, 1 Kings 211); Nimrod, who in his earlier days as king of Ur had flung Abraham into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship the idols (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 26, Bereishit Rabbah 38:13, Eiruvin 53a, Pesachim 118a et. al.).

The Talmud provides the contrast between Rebecca and her son, Esau: “Rabbi Elazar said: A tzaddik who dwelt between two evil people did not learn from their ways, and an evil person dwelt between two tzaddikim and did not learn from their ways. The tzaddik who dwelt between two evil people and did not learn from their ways was the prophet Obadiah [who dwelt between Ahab and Jezebel – Rashi], and the evil person who dwelt between two tzaddikim and did not learn from their ways was Esau” (Yoma 38b).

And to this we can now add Eliezer, born to the wicked tyrant Nimrod, but who rejected his father’s evil ways.

We noted above that last week, Parashat Vayeira concluded with the Akeidah. G-d sent Abraham on this hardest of tests with the words, “Take now your son, your only one, whom you love – Isaac – and get yourself to the land of Moriah, and offer him up as a burnt-offering” (Genesis 22:1-2).

And early the next morning, when he went to obey G-d’s command, Abraham “took his two lads with him as well as Isaac his son” (v. 3).

Several Midrashic sources (Targum Yonatan ad. loc., Vayikra Rabbah 26:7, et. al.) identify these “two lads” as Eliezer and Ishmael. However, this leaves us with a major question: G-d told Abraham to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him. Why did Abraham decide to take the two lads with them? And why Eliezer and Ishmael?

Neither Eliezer nor Ishmael play any role in the events of the Akeidah; they carry no wood, they remain behind with the donkey so cannot be witnesses to the event, they say nothing throughout the narrative – they seem to be utterly superfluous.

So why did Abraham bring them along?

I suggest:

– A time there was, when Abram was yet childless, when he assumed that his loyal servant Eliezer would inherit his house, his mission, his charge to the world. But G-d promised him that he would have a son of his own who would be his inheritor (Genesis 15:2-4).

Thus when Ishmael was born to Hagar, the Egyptian maid-servant, he assumed that Ishmael would be his inheritor.

But G-d corrected him again, promising that Sarah would yet bear him a son whom they would call Isaac, and Isaac – and only Isaac – would be his inheritor, the son through whom the Covenant would continue (17:18-21).

But now, G-d commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham was thrown into a quandary: if Isaac would be no more, then who would his inheritor be?

Abraham saw himself returning to the time before his son Isaac could be his inheritor – so he returned to his two previous potential inheritors, Eliezer and Ishmael. He took those two “lads” with him, so that after sacrificing his son Isaac he would be able to pass the mantle to whichever of them would be appropriate.

But there is a vast difference between the two.

Eliezer accepted his master Abraham’s decrees perfectly. He accepted that he was not to inherit Abraham’s property or mission. He had a different task – not to be Abraham’s inheritor, but to continue to be his servant, faithfully fulfilling Abraham’s instructions.

In a word – Eliezer understood that his task was to be Eliezer, not to be Isaac. And he was determined to be the very best Eliezer that he possibly could be. And he succeeded magnificently.

But Ishmael was not content to be Ishmael: he wanted to be Isaac. He wanted to be Abraham’s inheritor, he wanted the Covenant to pass through him. He wanted to usurp Isaac’s position. He did not try to be the best Ishmael he could be – he instead tried to be Isaac.

And he failed miserably.

The great Hassidic master, Reb Zusha of Hanipol (1718-1800), affectionately known as the “fool of G-d”, famously said: When I face the Heavenly Court, I will not fear the question, Why were you not Abraham? Of course I wasn’t Abraham, I wasn’t expected to be. Neither will I fear the question, Why weren’t you Moshe? Again, of course I wasn’t Moshe, I wasn’t expected to be. Neither will I fear the question, Why weren’t you King David? After all, who could expect me to be King David? But when they ask me: Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha? – Ah, that question will frighten me, because to that question, I have no answer.

Of course, Zusha was supposed to be Zusha, and not Abraham, Moshe, or King David...even as Eliezer was supposed to be Eliezer and not Isaac, and Ishmael was supposed to be Ishmael, and not Isaac.

Had Ishmael honestly and sincerely tried to be the best Ishmael he possibly could be, his repentance would have been sincere, he could have set his descendants on a course to greatness.

But he didn’t. He tried to be Isaac – even as his descendants today try to usurp Isaac’s inheritance. Not content with striving to be the best Ishmaelites they possibly can be, they strive instead to inherit Israel, to rule Israel’s holy places.

Yet even the modern-day Ishmaelites are not condemned to repeat the sins and errors of their progenitor. The story of Eliezer – born of Nimrod, son of Cush (Genesis 10:8), of the accursed line of Ham (9:25) – teaches that anyone can escape the curse of his ancestors.

The Midrash records that “when [Eliezer] performed thin kindness for [Abraham’s] son, [Abraham] released him from servitude; and G-d gave him his reward in this world – because evil people should have no reward in the World to Come – and He set him up as king: he became Og, King of Bashan” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 16).

On the surface, this Midrash seems to imply that Eliezer was granted his reward in this world because he was evil. But there is a sequel: Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, was one of the very few who entered the Garden of Eden while yet alive (one of seven according to Kallah Rabbati 3:26, one of nine according to Derech Eretz Zuta 1:18).

Hence it emerges that Eliezer, scion of the accursed line of Canaan, was both given immense reward in this world and taken into Paradise without having to die. He fully earned his reward by his own efforts and on his own merits.

Ishmael spurned his own destiny; he refused to become what he was, trying instead to become Isaac. As long as his descendants follow the same error, incessant conflict is unavoidable. There can be only one Isaac – and the imposter has perforce to fight the real Isaac.

And the corollary is that as soon as Ishmael stops trying to be Isaac, when Ishmael instead strives to be the best Ishmael he possibly can be, then he can live in peace and harmony with Isaac.

Of course, Isaac – we, the Children of Israel – have the same obligation. As long as Israel tries to be Esau (Western civilisation, European in character and ideology), Israel will never achieve his destiny or live in harmony. Of course, Israel’s task is not to be Esau, but to be the best Israel that he possibly can be.

Both as a nation and as individuals: Become what you are!


1 Seder Olam Rabbah Chapter 1. A simple calculation of the genealogy from Adam to Noah (Genesis 5) and from Noah to Abraham (Genesis 11:10-26) shows that Abraham was born in 1948 from Creation. From the Covenant between the Parts until the Exodus from Egypt was 430 years (Targum Yonatan to Exodus 12:40, Sh’mot Rabbah 18:11, Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay 12:40, et. al.). Since the Exodus happened in the year 2448, the Covenant between the Parts happened in the year 2018, when Abraham was 70.

2 Sarah died at the beginning of Parashat Chayyei Sarah when she was 127 years old. Since Abraham was 10 years older than Sarah )Genesis 17:17), he was 137 years old at the beginning of our Parashah. Hence when he dispatched Eliezer on his mission, he was at least 137 years old, maybe more, depending on how much time had elapsed since Sarah’s death.