A Random Walk With Rashi: On the Precipice of Pericope

It has been a while since our last summary, a few weeks in fact, which in Rashi time is …. well, just a few weeks.

For various reasons (those pesky end of fiscal year details, among others) I have not been able to keep on track with our Rashi summaries. Then again, that’s not such a bad thing this time around, since over the past three weeks, and three verses, Rashi has been uncharacteristically silent – only commenting on a single one of the verses we’ve covered.  That provides a good opportunity to catch our breath, and step back to look at things a bit more broadly.  So broadly, it seems, as to include Islamic views of our story to date.

For those new to these summaries, or who may simply need a reminder, over the last several verses we have seen the scene shift from Isaac’s weaning, to Ishmael’s mocking, to the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, Sarah’s evil eye leading to Ishmael’s illness, to water (or the lack thereof), to their separation, and finally, to the reappearance of G-d and his angel at our current scene in the desert.

Just another average pericope in our world (pronounced pe-ri-ke-pee, by the way).

We are at a point in the story where our forefathers seem to have approached a fork in the road, with one leading to their following the footsteps of Isaac, on a path that we are still traveling down to this day, while the other leading on a path in the footsteps of Ishmael.  Not sure if ours was the one less traveled at the time, but it certainly seems to be a bit more free-flowing to this day.

We pick things up at the moment where Hagar and her son Ishmael have been banished from Gerar, and have just plotzed from exhaustion in the desert.  In our previous verses, Hagar has cast Ishmael off under a bush, and has walked two bowshots away, where she begins to wail aloud – though to whom, or perhaps to what, we don’t yet know.

And what is the significance of two bowshots, you might ask?  We don’t know that either.  Perhaps that was just far enough for Ishmael to not hear her cry.  Or maybe two bowshots is the distance beyond which G-d cannot cover both bases, and needs to rely on an angel to handle one situation while G-d handles the other.

Any better ideas are welcome.

What is most curious about the verse is that we learn only that Hagar cries out, yet it is Ishmael whose cry is answered.  Is this because her plea was on his behalf, and his was on behalf of himself?  Or perhaps because her prayers were to an idol, and his were to our G-d, and the G-d of his father Abraham, upon whose shoulders he really rode.


Genesis 21:17: G-d heard the voice of the youth, and an angel of Gd called to Hagar from the heavens and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not, for Gd has heeded the cry of the youth as he is, there.

21:18: Arise, lift up the youth and grasp your hand upon him, for I will make a great nation of him.”

21:19: Then G-d opened her eyes and she perceived a well of water; she went and filled the skin with water and gave the youth to drink.


Our discussions over the past few weeks have touched on a few common themes in these verses, beginning with the very unusual phrasing at the end of Verse 17 – “as he is, there”.  And we are not alone.  Rashi also honed in on this verse, in a lengthy commentary that includes the following:


In accordance with the deeds that he does at present he is judged, and not in accordance with what he is destined to do. For the ministering angels were impugning Ishmael, and saying, “Master of the World!” He who’s descendents are destined to put Your children to death by thirds, would You cause a well to rise up for him?” He answered them, “What is he now: righteous or wicked?” They said to Him, “Righteous.” He said to them “In accordance with his deeds at present I judge him”. This is the meaning of “as he is, there” in the state he is, there I judge him.


From this short phrase, Rashi concludes that regardless of the wrong Ishmael may have done in the past (mocking Isaac, which Rashi considers a serious offense), and regardless of where we know he will end up in the future (as a ‘wild ass of a man’, Genesis 16:12) – G-d will judge Ishmael ‘as he is’, at this very moment in the desert, and based on that alone, will reach out to save him.

Just why, or how, is Ishmael worthy of being saved?  We can only think of one reason – the power of teshuvah, repentance.  It is at this very moment that G-d hears Ishmael’s plea for help, even over the pleas of this mother Hagar.  From this, in turn, Rashi concludes (in his previous commentary) that those who pray for themselves take precedence over those who pray for others.

It seems that the question of how to treat a person, regardless of his past or future, has parallels to this day.  How else do we reconcile scenes in which those in a Norwegian court will shake the hand of the neatly dressed man who is charged with murdering 69 people?  By contrast, how do we compare that scene with the defendants in Guantanamo, who are shackled and silent, yet smiling between themselves?

All the more importantly (tongue in cheek), how are we to judge Romney, as the bully he was, the President he may become, or the person he is at this moment, or that moment, whoops, there we go – this moment?

We were also struck by the very cinematic – if not almost melodramatic – nature of our current scene, with both mother and child crying out, and G-d responding with justice.  To say nothing of the clear parallels between this and the upcoming scene in which it will be Abraham, rather than Hagar, that is sent out to essentially sacrifice a son, and who is also suddenly stopped, and relieved to see something that may have been in front of his eyes all along. What is perhaps most fascinating about our verses, yet again, is the fact that Rashi finds little to comment upon.  As we have seen, this does not mean that he misses or denies the impact of the scene or story, but rather suggests that the verses simply speak for themselves, and without the need for comment or explanation by him.

If there is an overriding theme that jumps out, it could be how time and again, our Torah seems to go out of its way to make miracles seem like part of the natural world.  Ishmael is not simply saved by a jolt of lightning, but rather, by G-d stepping in to help open the eyes and senses of the people involved.

Yet both this story, and that of the ram in the upcoming Akedah, were said to have been included in the miracles that were worked into the fabric of our creation, at twilight on the sixth day. According to Chapter 5 of Mishna 8(a), “[t]en things were created on the Sabbath eve at twilight. They are:

  • the mouth of the earth [which swallowed Korach and his co-conspirators] (Numbers 16:32),
  • the mouth of the well [which accompanied Israel in the desert],
  • the mouth of the donkey [which rebuked Balaam] (ibid., 22:28),
  • the rainbow,
  • the Manna,
  • the staff [of Moses],
  • the shamir worm,
  • the script [of the Torah],
  • the inscription [on the Tablets of the Ten Commandments], and
  • the Tablets.

Some say that also included in the miracles created that day were: destructive spirits, the burial place of Moses, and the ram of our father Abraham [which he slaughtered in place of Isaac] (Genesis 22:13), and even, some would also say tongs.  The question of how tongs made their way onto the ‘almost’ list of miracles will need to await another discussion and summary someday.

It had to have been a conference committee amendment.

But it seems clear that even when the miracles have been predetermined and ready for our use, they do not simply show up when needed.  Instead, they take action on our part, repentance at times, or the merit of our ancestors, all perhaps coupled with the ability to somehow perceive what is within our reach. In our Rashi group last week we were fortunate to study the story of Ishmael as told in the Koran, through the eyes of an Imam as our guest.  The common elements are as profound as the differences, and all are beyond the scope of this summary (let alone my ability to convey).

Fresh from our guest’s insights and eloquence we will dive back into our text this week, and who knows what we will see, or hopefully perceive, with the new lens we’ve been given.

(Photo: peterwmdavis)