21 Marcheshvan 5775
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Chayyei Sarah: Towards the downfall of the savage
by Daniel Pinner
Parashat Chayyei Sarah opens with the death of Sarah our mother in Hebron at the age of 127 years (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, at 175 years old (Genesis 25:7-11), and finally a brief summary of the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son by his Egyptian servant-woman Hagar, and Ishmael’s death at age 137 years (vs. 12-18).
Abraham – “the rock from which we are hewn” (Isaiah 51:1-2) – is the genesis of our national history. Parashat Chayyei Sarah, in which both our mother Sarah’s and our father Abraham’s deaths are recorded, is, so to speak, the end of the beginning.
Concluding Parashat Chayyei Sarah, the Torah records six sons whom 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; Tanhuma, Chayyei Sarah 8; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 30; Targum Yonatan, Genesis 25:1; Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 109) identify Keturah as Hagar.
But of all his eight sons, it was only Isaac who was Abraham’s spiritual heir.
“God 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” (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.
And what of 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 Hamabar 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 is so that you know how old your ancestor [Jacob] was when he was blessed [by Isaac]” (Bereishit Rabbah 62:5).
(Just for the sake of clarity, the Talmud in 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 nafal, 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 nafal 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 because Hashem has heard your prayer. And he will be a pere adam (wild man), his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and facing all his brothers he will dwell” (Genesis 16:11-12).
Here the final word is “yishkon” (he will dwell).
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 “pere”), explains the word pere to mean “wild donkey”, hence the phrase pere adam (which we translated above as “wild man”) to mean “a man of the deserts like a wild donkey”. The S’forno explains, “‘Pere’ 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 within civilised human society.
Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish) gave different explanations of the phrase “pere adam”. “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).
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 Ishmael (‘God-will-hear’)? – Because in the future time, God 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 “God 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 the Midrashic work Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer: 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 will fall/dwell”, 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”.