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We must look at the past to understand the present. The narratives of our ancestors are filled with tremendous teaching in how to conduct our lives. The good, bad and ugly are all depicted in the biblical episodes that took place thousands of years ago. The difference between Book of Genesis compared to other prophetic works is that the actions of the forefathers there forge the genetic blueprint of the Jewish nation. Each positive or negative act back then had a ripple effect on future generations.
The Arab nations of Ishmael have been a source of discomfort to the descendants of Isaac for millennia. Where is the source of the conflict, and is there a remedy? What began as a wife's intervention to produce progeny for Abraham quickly unraveled into a soap-opera nightmare!
God promised Abraham that he would have a child of his own, and thereby give rise to countless descendants, but he and Sarah were childless after many years of marriage. Sarah takes the initiative (Genesis 16) and suggests that Hagar, her Egyptian bondwoman, should be used as a surrogate; any child Hagar bears will be understood to be Sarah's. Abraham, instead of praying over the idea, quickly goes into "yes dear" mode.
Hagar becomes pregnant and begins to flaunt her fertility before Sarah. But instead of defending the honor of his wife, Abraham throws the whole thing back at her. As a result, the pregnant Hagar is treated so harshly by Sarah that she flees into the wilderness. God never enters the picture until an angel of the Lord appears to Hagar at a well in the desert. The angel offers no comfort, but instructs Hagar to return and submit to Sarah. However, she is given a promise that mirrors the one given to Abraham about countless descendants. The name of her son is to be Ishmael, which means 'God hears,' because the Lord has heeded Hagar's affliction. Ishmael's life is not to be an easy one, and a future of perpetual conflict between him and his kin is foretold.
Fast-forwarding to Genesis 21, Sarah is remembered by God and gives birth to Isaac. However, Ishmael is seen by Sarah as metzachek (Genesis 21:9). Most translators interpret the word to mean mocking. I would offer an alternative translation: isaacing, meaning Ishamel was positioning himself to be like Isaac, the sole heir of Abraham¹s spiritual estate.
The Torah is quite clear that Sarah never really adopts Ishmael as her own, referring to him as the son of this slave-woman (Genesis 21:10). Sarah instructs Abraham to banish both Hagar and Ishmael so that neither can share in Isaac's inheritance. God tells Abraham to follow Sarah's instructions, assuring him that Isaac will be considered his spiritual progeny. But then Abraham wakes up early and gives Hagar and Ishmael nothing but bread and water before sending them into the scorching wilderness. Is this the same man who ran around to provide sumptuous meals for three complete strangers? It's precisely because of the harsh behavior of Sarah compounded by Abraham's act of cruelty toward Ishmael, that the Jewish nation faces so many problems today. The covenantal blessing, promised by God through the progeny of Isaac, does not give the Jewish people either an excuse or a right to mistreat the progeny of Ishmael.
Israel needs to learn from the Sarah/Hagar episode and not emulate what our forefathers did. We must live within our Sinatic Revelation and treat all people who live in our land with grace and kindness. Over a million Israeli Arabs live as citizens in Israel. It is our duty to ensure that they have equal access to education and other governmental services, and not be discriminated against. Even if we see our Arab cousins as strangers, Exodus 22:20 says it quite clearly: You shall not oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. If we are to be 'a light unto the nations,' then we need to live up to our biblical responsibilities and undo this ancient injustice. Maybe then the fist of Ishmael will become a hand that uplifts.
The question still remains if the Jewish Nation acts in accordance with biblical principles, who's to say that Ishmael will change? And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age.... an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 25:8-9). What is perplexing in these verses is that not only do Isaac and Ishmael find a way to come together to bury their father, but Scripture names Isaac first and Ishmael second. Ishmael finally acknowledges Isaac as Abraham's spiritual heir. This is a complete about face for Ishmael, who as a kid behaved as if he thought he should be the sole heir.
No dialogue between the siblings is recorded in the Bible not even a mention as to how Ishmael made this change in his life. All we have is Ishmael, when the inheritance is front and center, allowing the true heir to walk before him.
Shortly afterward, the Bible relates that God fulfilled his promise to Ishmael, making him the father of twelve great nations. His death is described like that of his father Abraham; these were the years of Ishmael's life: a hundred and thirty-seven, when he expired, died, and was gathered to his people (Genesis 25:17). For this episode to be recorded in Scripture further indicates that Ishmael had realized the error of his ways.
There is a mystical Jewish teaching which says that Ishmael's angel had complained that he was rejected and that Isaac was chosen to receive the Land of Israel, even though both were circumcised. God responds that in times when the nation of Israel is not in the Land, their cousins the Ishmaelites will guard it until they return. It is through the merit of circumcision that they are deemed worthy of living in the Land. Muhammed, in his final sermon, reminded his listeners of their obligation to return property entrusted to them when its owner returns. In the end, Ishmael comes to terms with his role in God's plan and understands the position of Isaac.
Isaac, however, had his own reconciling to do. After the deaths of Abraham and Sarah, we find Isaac seeking refuge in Be'er L'chai Ro'i (Well of the Living One, my Beholder Genesis 24:62 & Genesis 25:11). It becomes Isaac's home, and a designated place of prayer... a place of revelation and prophecy, since it is here that an angel had appeared to Hagar. Perhaps Isaac felt a sense of responsibility for Ishmael's expulsion, and now wishes to reunite the family. Possibly as long as Sarah was alive, Isaac could not make this move, for it was his mother who had demanded the removal of Hagar and her son. After Sarah's death, Isaac is free to try and bring people together, and with Abraham's death he goes one step further, choosing to live with his brother in Be'er L'chai Ro'i. So the Bible is clear that a family split need not be permanent. Yet we find on occasion in the media that the Cave of the Patriarchs, which once represented reconciliation between brothers, has become a source of conflict. Both sides need to be reminded that the goal should not be to overpower the other, but to find a way to live in harmony.
The Midrash tells us that the Cave of the Patriarchs is the threshold to Eden. Why? Perhaps to hint that reconciliation and the healing of interpersonal relationships are prerequisites for spiritual perfection. May Arab and Jew finally emulate the ways of their ancestors, Ishmael and Isaac.
The Bible commands us to celebrate the festival of Passover (Exodus 13:3): "Remember this day when you came out a free nation, from the land of Egypt." The Hebrew word for remember is expressed in a very special way - zachor. There is another zachor: "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." These two remembrances are linked together because they demand re-experiencing, a remembering by doing.
In the Ten Commandments, the celebration of the Sabbath is both linked to creation and the Egyptian servitude. In keeping the Sabbath, we are testifying that God is the creator and redeemer of the world. Therefore, every week, we must re-experience God's primordial week, the world has a creator, meaning and redemption.
On Passover, the commandment is about re-experiencing the exile and the exodus from Egypt. The entire Seder is transforming the historical national memory of the Exodus into personal individual experience. Why remember our humble origins? Why remember that we were slaves? I dare say that if you read histories of ancient peoples, I don't know of any nation that glories in the humble past of servitude except for us.
We sing proudly Avadim Hayinu B'mitzraim - we were servants unto Pharaoh in Egypt. We can never stop being grateful that God brought us out with a strong arm and an outstretched hand. Once we understand that our God despises servitude, totalitarian governments and Pharaohs, he guarantees that we will ultimately achieve a world of peace and freedom. Remembering and personally experiencing our past servitude enables us to never despair no matter what the vagaries of history may impinge upon us.
The Bible repeats again and again the lesson that we must take with us from Egyptian servitude: You must love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. It was a very critical forming agent in our national narrative. In other words, you knew what it was to feel the pain of servitude, so never enslave anyone else.
This is precisely what that evening in the Passover Seder is trying to accomplish. We must feel for at least part of one night a year the pangs of slavery, of hunger, of helplessness, of being another so that we will always reach out to others and help the elderly and the indigent and to free the enslaved.
By David Nekrutman
The Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation