When our Rashi study group last met, on the first day of Purim, we wondered what the stories of Purim and Ishmael’s banishment might have in common. Not something you might often think about, and probably for good reason as it turns out.
At a minimum, both are myths that play out time and again within different religions, and in different ways, yet all sharing what seem to be common underpinnings. The celebration, costumes, and drinking of Purim find parallels in Mardi Gras, St Patrick’s Day, and other celebrations of Spring.
So too, does the story of Ishmael have parallels with stories that occurred both before and since, and among most, if not all religions and faiths. In 1988, PBS provided a series of discussions between Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell, which led to Campbell’s book “The Power of Myth”. The series is playing again on cable (ours at least), and includes Campbell’s reminder that the myths often tend to deal with similar tests, leading to transformations, or revelations, on the part of the protagonist. There are typically no rewards for passing these tests, but there is generally a price to be paid (in our case along with a hefty cable bill).
As for our study group, the tension was continuing to build when we last left Abraham, as he was about to encounter the 10th of his 11 tests – and it is not likely to let up for quite some time.
We began with excerpts from a book by the Rabbi’s former teacher Norman Cohen, called “Self, Struggle & Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis”. The book explores various key relationships throughout Genesis, together with the meanings and parallels they provide in our own lives today. It includes one chapter entitled “Ishmael and Isaac – the tensions between siblings”, in which Cohen suggests that “Abraham must have suffered greatly when Hagar and Ishmael were banished to the desert”, and again later, after nearly sacrificing Isaac, only to return home, and find that Sarah had died. It was not a good week.
“From the very outset of Abraham’s journey from Ur”, Cohen continues, “he experienced a sense of separation from his family.” His own brothers and father stayed behind, and he started his wanderings with only his wife and nephew Lot. Yet even then, this sense of separation repeated itself time and again … having to later separate from Lot, then Ishmael, then Isaac, in the midst of which he offered Sarah not once, but twice, to different kings. Each time, Cohen tells us that Abraham, must have felt considerable pain, yet he was willing to do (and often cause others to do) what he felt called upon to do.
If there is any common denominator to it all, it could only have been his faith in G-d (at least until I watch more episodes of Moyers and Campbell).
The irony of these events must have added to that pain. Cohen reminds us that it was on the very day that Ishmael was circumcised, becoming a full-fledged member of the tribe, that Abraham learned that he and Sarah would give birth to a son, and within a year no less. Yet Abraham would continue to live with Ishmael as his son, and apparent heir.
What is perhaps most amazing, beyond even the story itself, is the fact that it exists at all, and in our holiest text.
Are Jews somehow unique in their ability or need to look back and continually remember, let alone learn from, what is clearly an unflattering and painful picture of our own past?
All the more so when we recall that this is the scene, and story, that will lead us down the path of, literally, two separate nations – which both continue to this day – together with the differences and strife that seem to have their origin in this very scene, and in spite of our common roots.
While Cohen tries to understand and explain these stories from the perspective of our relatively ‘modern’ mindset, coupled with our texts, Rashi took a considerably different slant 1000 or so years ago, trying as best he could to give us the straight scoop, yet inevitably in a way that errs on the side of raising up both Abraham and Sarah.
And so it was, that we began to bridge the divide between Cohen and Rashi, with Genesis 21:12-13.
So G-d said to Abraham, “Be not distressed over the youth or your slave woman; Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice, since through Isaac will offspring be considered yours”.
HEED HER VOICE – We learn from this that Abraham was secondary to Sarah in matters of prophecy.
[G-d continues] “But the son of the slave woman as well will I make into a nation, for he is your offspring.”
Curiously, there is no Rashi commentary to verse 13, so we have little to go on, when it comes to understanding Abraham’s relationship with Ishmael at this moment. We may have to rely on … of all things … the text itself.
We focused, first, on what these verses tell us about Ishmael and Isaac. Though Ishmael was the first born son, and presumably the heir to the Abraham legacy, we realize that he was also the son of ‘that girl’ (for those few out there who remember Marlo Thomas), who in turn was the legitimate ‘wife’ of Abraham, but also the servant of Sarah herself. (In Marlo’s case, she was the daughter of Danny Thomas, who was famously Lebanese, so here the parallels finally do break down).
Yet the same Hebrew word is used with respect to both sons – zeran, meaning “seed” – so whatever may be the difference between them is not to be found there. Digging deeper, we learn that even though both are considered Abraham’s offspring, and legitimate sons – as it turns out, there is equal, and then there is more equal.
Though Ishmael will be blessed, and will himself become the leader of a great nation, it is through Isaac alone that Abraham’s own seed will be blessed. In other words, Ishmael will be taken care of – becoming the leader of a great nation is nothing to sneeze at, after all – though it is through Isaac that the Jewish faith will continue and survive.
It seems that, yet again, G-d recognizes and understands Abraham’s pain, and anthropomorphically steps in (quite possibly my biggest word to date), to assure him that all will be well. This must have given Abraham considerable peace of mind, to know that he would not be sending Ishmael off to his death.
If there is yet another thought that jumps out at us, within the story line itself, it is in Abraham’s ability to continually respond to the challenges he encounters, without hesitation. He may barter or bluff, whether it is in bargaining for Sodom, on the one hand, or questioning “which son”, on the other, but he doesn’t back down.
There seem to be parallels, as well, between Abraham’s singular faith in this regard, and that of the Jewish people, particularly when we recall what it means for us to have become the ‘chosen’ people. According to one Midrash, we were ‘chosen’ by simply being the last ones still standing when it came to G-d’s musical chairs when passing out the Torah. All the other nations were offered the Torah before us, the story goes, and each one turned it down. Not only did we accept the challenge, but we did so sight unseen, with the famous phrase “na’aseh v’nishma” – we will do and we will heed. In other words, the answer is yes. Now what is the question? And where do we put it?
We can only be thankful that our religion began in the days before caller ID. Where would we be if Abraham’s response to G-d’s call “lech lecha” was to shout out “Don’t get it, its from that Elohim guy again!”.
Will Abraham answer the call this time around?
Stay tuned as we turn to verse 14, and the first of two scenes in which Abraham will rise early in the morning, to do the thing that needs to be done, with the son that he loves. Which son? Hudu. Hudu? You do. We all do.