A Random Walk With Rashi: Careening Our Way Through Genesis May Be More Like It

It’s been a while. How’s your summer? It’s got to be better than Ishmael’s.

When we last left him, he was with his mother Hagar, the two banished under the watchful eye of Sarah, stranded, parched, and left to die in the desert. At that point, G-d suddenly appeared on the scene, by means of his angel, who showed Hagar that there was a well nearby (which was presumably within her view all along), and saved them both.

Fast forward (as the Torah itself literally does at this point) to the remaining verses of Genesis Chapter 21 – all leading up to the cliffhanger that is Chapter 22, and the binding of Isaac. Given our hit and miss study group schedule over the summer, together with my need to catch up, coupled with relatively few comments by Rashi himself, we will go against the grain and tackle several verses of Genesis below. Similarly, Rashi’s concerns are addressed by the terms shown in capital letters below, while for brevity, his corresponding comments are paraphrased considerably (and at times a bit tongue in cheek I might add – I think we’re all getting a bit giddy).

Aligning our verses with the annual cycle, let alone Rosh Hashanah, is about as rare for us as the recent sight of Venus transiting the sun.

So buckle up, place your biblical tray tables in their upright positions, and let us begin, shall we?

Genesis 21:20-21
G-d was with the youth and he grew up; he dwelt in the desert and became a shooter, an archer.
He dwelt in the desert of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

AN ARCHER – this refers to the craft of archery, akin to describing a donkey driver, or camel driver, which is why the shin of ‘kashat’ (archer) has a dagesh. Ishmael would dwell in the desert and rob the passerby. (Whoa, where did that come from Rashi?)

FROM THE LAND OF EGYPT – from the land where Hagar grew up, since she was born and raised in Egypt, as people say ‘throw a stick into the air, and it will land on its root’.

We learn from these verses, and Rashi, that Ishmael will become a world class archer, and shooter, though we wonder just what difference, if any, there may be between the two. The only thing that makes sense, is that a shooter refers to the traditional short range, hit the bulls eye, sort of skill, while archer refers to the long range sort of shots that would rain down on an enemy from afar. Certainly different skill sets, and it would appear Ishmael became expert in both.

As for Hagar, Rashi seems to conclude that an apple never falls far from the tree. She was born in Egypt, and even though she became part of Abraham’s entourage (though never did ‘convert’ as I recall), she now returns to those roots in order to find comfort and solace, and presumably, a wife for her son. Who wouldn’t do the same in a similar situation? In fact, we can almost picture her signing him up for E-date.

Our next several verses suddenly change the scene considerably, taking us back to Abraham and Abimelech – who we assume is one and the same as the Abimelech of previous verses, though we’re not sure because the word could be used as a title instead.

Genesis 21:22 – 26
At that time, Abimelech and Phicol, general of his legion, said to Abraham, “G-d is with you in all that you do.

Now swear to me here by G-d that you will not deal falsely with me or with my child or with my grandchild; according to the kindness that I have done with you, do with me, and with the land in which you have sojourned.”

And Abraham said, “I will swear.”

The Abraham disputed with Abimelech regarding the well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized.

Abimelech said, “I do not know who did this thing; furthermore you have never told me, and moreover I myself have not heard [of it] except for today.”

So Abraham took flocks and cattle and gave them to Abimelech, and the two of them entered into a covenant.

For such a long section, and in spite of the various parts that jump out at us, Rashi has relatively few concerns. Perhaps he too has his sights set on the Akedah.

OR WITH MY CHILD OR WITH MY GRANDCHILD – up to this point there is mercy of the father over the son (i.e., a man feels paternal love toward his child and grandchild, but not toward generations beyond that).

THEN ABRAHAM DISPUTED – Abraham argued or rebuked Abimelech (translations vary), regarding a well on the land that was within Abimelech kingdom, and being used by Abraham.

This sequence of events is somewhat odd in its own right – but putting it in this particular location of the story makes it seem all the odder. It seems that Abimelech is offering a pact of sorts to Abraham, who accepts the proposition (or rather “will” accept it), though not quite yet. Instead, Abraham responds with a caveat, along the lines of ‘by the way, now that you mention it there is something that has been nagging at me’.

There are aspects of these scenes that remind us of prior scenes (and for those peeking ahead, scenes to come as well). These include the various ways in which a covenant can be made, or more accurately, a deal can be “cut”.
Both portions also deal with G-d being ‘with’ someone, first Ishmael and now Abraham. In the first occurrence, it is the Torah itself that tells us of what seems to be G-d’s very special relationship with Ishmael, while in the latter, it is Abimelech who confirms Abraham’s position in this regard. He does so, presumably based upon the various successes of Abraham that Abimelech himself has witnessed, including the escape from Sodom, Abraham’s success in war (4 kings against the 5), and now the impending birth of a son at the spritely age of almost 100. If Abimelech wasn’t convinced before that this Abraham guy might be onto something, he certainly seems to be now.

Curiously, both portions also involve the thought of a well, first the one that saves Hagar and Ishmael, and now the one that causes tension between Abraham and Abimelech. As you might expect, particularly given the land involved, the concept of wells will become a central theme in the life and story of Isaac himself (stay tuned).

We will be meeting again this week, but for the summer not so much, for various reasons, before we reconvene again as a group in September.

In the meantime, watch for periodic blasts from the past as we revisit old Rashi stomping grounds together – careening at times perhaps, but mostly just continuing on our casual stroll, and just trying to make some sense of it all.

(Photo: Wally Hartshorn)