CHAYEI SARAH 5782
Towards the downfall of the savage

The Torah tells us of Ishmael's propensity for bloodshed: "his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him.” Will it ever end?

Daniel Pinner ,

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צילום: אביעד כתפי

Parashat Chayyei Sarah opens with the death of Sarah our mother in Hebron at the age of 127 (Genesis 23:1) in the year 2085 (1675 B.C.E.), and concludes with the death and burial of Abraham our father 38 years later, 175 years old (Genesis 25:7-11), and finally a brief summary of the descendants Ishmael, Abraham’s son by his Egyptian servant-woman Hagar, and Ishmael’s death at age 137(vs. 12-18).

Concluding Parashat Chayyei Sarah, the Torah records six sons who Abraham begat in addition to Isaac and Ishmael – Zimran, Yokshan, Medan, Midian, Yishbak, and Shuach – born to his wife Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2); several Midrashic sources (Bereishit Rabbah 61:4, Targum Yonatan to Genesis 25:1, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 30, Tanhuma Chayyei Sarah 8 et al.) identify Keturah as Hagar.

But of all his eight sons, it was only Isaac who was Abraham’s spiritual heir.

G-d said: In any event, Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you will call his name Isaac, and I will establish My Covenant with him as an eternal Covenant for his descendants after him” (Genesis 17:19) – “the Covenant of Circumcision [Brit Milah] will be given over to Isaac’s descendants” (Rashi ad. loc.), “not with Ishmael and his descendants, because Ishmael’s descendants are not part of the Covenant which I have forged with you” (Malbim ad. loc.).

“Your descendants will be called through Isaac” (Genesis 21:12), “and this son of the slave-woman [Ishmael, son of Hagar] will not be your descendants after you” (Targum Yonatan ad loc.), “because when I said ‘I will give to you and your descendants after you…all the Land of Canaan’ (Genesis 17:8) I spoke only of Isaac, because he is your special descendant” (Radak ad loc.). “‘Your descendants will be called through Isaac’ because only Isaac has the heart and the spiritual treasure, which means Jacob who will be born to him” (Malbim ad loc.).

The rest of the Tanach will recount the national history of Abraham’s descendants – Isaac, Jacob, the Twelve Tribes of Israel – for the next one-and-a-third millennia, until the return from Babylonian exile and the rebuilding of the Second Temple. Other nations and people, from the most insignificant individuals to history’s mightiest empires – Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia – are mentioned solely insofar as they interact with and have impact on the Jewish nation.

As for Ishmael, Parashat Chayyei Sarah concludes with his death:

“And these are the years of Ishmael’s life – a hundred and thirty-seven years – and he expired and died and was gathered unto his nation. And they [Ishmael’s descendants] dwelt from Havilah to Shur – which faces Egypt – as you approach Assyria; facing all his brothers he fell” (Genesis 25:17-18).

The Midrash relates that “Rabbi Hama bar Ukva and the Rabbis were sitting and puzzling: Why did the Torah see fit to record the descendants of this evil man here? Rabbi Levi passed by, and they said: Here comes a master on interpreting Torah – let’s ask him! Rabbi Levi said in Rabbi Hama bar Rabbi Hanina’s name: It’s so that you know how old your ancestor [Jacob] was when he was blessed [by Isaac]” (Bereishit Rabbah 62:5).

To clarify: the Talmud (Megillah 17a) uses this section to calculate that Jacob was 63 when he received his blessing from his father. Rashi paraphrases this chronological calculation in his commentary to Genesis 28:9.

The Torah records Ishmael’s age at the time of his death solely so that we can calibrate the chronology of Abraham’s spiritual heirs – Isaac and his descendants.

The final verse in Parashat Chayyei Sarah tells us that Ishmael’s descendants “dwelt from Havilah to Shur – which faces Egypt – as you approach Assyria; facing all his brothers he fell”. The final word is נָפָל, literally “he fell”, although many translations render “he dwelt” or “he settled”, following Targum Onkelos, Targum Yonatan, Targum Yerushalmi, Rashi (here and on Ecclesiastes 11:3), Rashbam, and Radak.

This interpretation of נָפָל meaning “dwelt” rather than the literal meaning “fell” is based on a parallel verse: before Ishmael was yet born, when his mother-to-be Hagar was wandering through the Negev Desert after fleeing from Sarah, she encountered an angel of Hashem who told her:

“Behold – you will conceive and will give birth to a son, and you shall name him Ishmael [יִשְׁמָעֵאל, G-d-will-hear] because Hashem has heard your prayer. And he will be a פֶּרֶא אָדָם, a wild man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and facing all his brothers יִשְׁכֹּן, he will dwell” (Genesis 16:11-12).

What does the phrase “a wild man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him” signify?

Targum Onkelos translates, “he will rebel against mankind”. Rashi explains, “‘a wild man’, loving deserts in which to hunt animals”. The Malbim explains, “he will be a man of wildness”.

The Radak (here and in Sefer ha-Shorashim, entry פרא), explains the wordפֶּרֶא to mean “wild donkey”, hence the phrase פֶּרֶא אָדָם (which we translated above as “wild man”) to mean “a man of the deserts like a wild donkey”. The S’forno explains, “פֶּרֶא is a wild donkey, so [the angel] said that he would be a wild donkey in his temperament, inherited from his Egyptian mother…and he would be a man from his father’s side”.

This is the temperament of Ishmael and those who claim descent from him. A man – fully human – but with the temperament of a wild donkey, suited to the desert, unable to coexist with his fellow-men. A man unable to accept human laws, unable to live with civilised human society.

Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish) gave different explanations of the phrase פֶּרֶא אָדָם:

“Rabbi Yochanan said, it means that though everyone grows up in inhabited areas, [Ishmael] will grow up in the desert. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, it means literally a savage among people, because while everyone else plunders property, he plunders lives” (Bereishit Rabbah 45:9).

“He would dwell in the desert and rob passers-by, which is the meaning of ‘his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him’” (Rashi, Genesis 21:20).

Over the last several months, Israeli news media have been saturated with stories of violence in the Arab sector. Currently, more than 70% of all murders committed in Israel involve Arabs murdering other Arabs – whether in clan warfare, “family honour” killings, organised crime, or a whole host of other factors – even though the Arabs constitute but 20% of the Israeli population.

Israeli social and political commentators have gone into overdrive in their desperate attempts to explain why Israeli Arab society is so incorrigibly steeped in violence.

Pundits, particularly from the Left, have a distressing propensity to blame the “occupation”, alienation from Israeli society, and the Israeli Arabs’ alleged “disadvantages” for their savagery.

But the Torah tells us whence this propensity for bloodshed: Ishmael “will be aפֶּרֶא אָדָם [wild man], his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him”.

And let anyone who doubts this, or who wishes to ascribe violence in Israeli-Arab society to Israel, simply observe Lebanon, or Syria, or Egypt, or Yemen, or Libya, or Saudi Arabia, or Iraq…

The angel had told Hagar to call her as-yet-unborn son Ishmael, “because Hashem has heard your prayer” (Genesis 16:11), and Ishmael could have chosen to actualise his name for good. But he instead chose the bad. “So why was he called יִשְׁמָעֵאל, Ishmael (‘G-d-will-hear’)? – Because in the future time, G-d will hear the screaming of the nation [of Israel] because of what Ishmael’s descendants will do to them in the Land of Israel at the end of days” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 32).

That time in which “G-d will hear the screaming of the nation [of Israel] because of what Ishmael’s descendants will do to them in the Land of Israel” was in the far-distant future when Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, known as Rabbi Eliezer the Great, wrote these prophetic words: he was a second-generation Tanna, living at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans.

But his future time is our present. These are difficult times – yet this Midrash can infuse us with hope and inspiration. If Ishmael’s descendants are making us scream in the Land of Israel – then this is an indication that we are approaching the end of days.

In this context, then, let us consider well the terse explanation of the Ba’al ha-Turim on the phrase “facing all his brothers he נָפָל, fell/dwelt”, the concluding words of Parashat Chayyei Sarah:

“The Torah immediately continues with, ‘And these are the generations of Isaac’ (Genesis 25:19, the opening words of Parashat Toldot), to tell you that when Ishmael will fall at the end of days, then the son of David [i.e. the mashiach], who is of the generations of Isaac, will flourish”.

Yes the violence to which we, the Children of Israel, are subjected by today’s descendants of Ishmael, particularly in Israel, is gruesome and unsettling. Indeed many – far too many – Jews in exile cite it as a reason for their refusal to make Aliyah and to dwell in Israel.

Yet paradoxically, it stands as a veritable beacon of light, beckoning us to safety:

Indeed “G-d will hear the screaming of the nation [of Israel] because of what Ishmael’s descendants will do to them in the Land of Israel at the end of days”, and that time is well and truly and indisputably upon us.

It is the time in which the savage will fall; and when Ishmael will fall at the end of days, then the son of David, meaning the mashiach, who is of the generations of Isaac, is about to begin flourishing.



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