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Why Ishmael Was Rejected

Why Ishmael Was Rejected

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This week's Parshah describes the bitter tension in Abraham’s home. Underlying the tension was the question of succession: which of Abraham’s two children would be the one chosen to carry on his legacy.

Each of the patriarchs of the Jewish people, explain the Kabbalists, personify one of three basic emotions. Abraham personified the emotion of kindness; Isaac personified awe; and Jacob personified compassion. Being that they are our ancestors, eachWho would carry on Abraham's legacy? of us contains a part of them in our spiritual makeup.

Reading the stories of Abraham, the theme of kindness appears again and again. Abraham made it his life’s mission is to invite travelers into his tent. He loved all people. He prayed to G‑d to save the wicked people of Sodom.

Abraham’s oldest child, Ishmael (the son of Hagar, the maidservant he married at the request of his wife, Sarah), also embodied kindness. Abraham therefore felt a unique connection to Ishmael. Not only was Ishmael his oldest son, but Ishmael also shared his passion for kindness, leading Abraham to hope that Ishmael would be the one to carry on his legacy.

That was not meant to be.

In this week’s portion we read about Sarah pressuring Abraham to send Ishmael away, as she felt he was a bad influence on her son, Isaac. G‑d instructs Abraham to listen to Sarah, leaving him no choice but to expel his own son from his home. G‑d reassures Abraham that Ishmael would be blessed, but also makes it clear that Isaac would be Abraham's spiritual heir, the one who would carry on his legacy.

Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, making merry. And Sarah said to Abraham, “Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.” But the matter greatly displeased Abraham, concerning his son. And G‑d said to Abraham, “Be not displeased concerning the lad and concerning your handmaid; whatever Sarah tells you, hearken to her voice, for in Isaac will be called your seed. But also the son of the handmaid I will make into a nation, because he is your seed.”1

Observing both of Abraham’s sons, it seems that Ishmael should have been the one to carry on the legacy of his father. After all, Ishmael shared the attribute of kindness with his father, while Isaac (who embodied the attribute of awe and fear) seemed to be very different. Why then was Isaac chosen?

While Abraham and Ishmael both performed kindness, the motivating force behind their actions could not be further apart. Once we examine the motivation behind Abraham's kindness, we will see that Isaac was much closer to Abraham than Ishmael could ever be.

There are two types of motivation for kindness.2 Abraham’s kindness was motivated by his humility. As Abraham says while praying for the people of Sodom, “I am but dust and ashes.”3 The humble person perceives everyone else as being greater than him. When he sees someone else in need, he will do anything in his power to help theThe motivating force behind their actions could not be further apart stranger who, the humble person believes, is more deserving than him. This was the kindness of Abraham.

On the other hand, Ishmael's kindness was not motivated by humility, but by arrogance. Ishmael felt that because he was greater than the people around him, he should be the one to provide for them, so that his superiority would be apparent. His kindness did not lead him closer to people. His kindness, fueled by his arrogance, pushed him farther away from the very people he helped.

G‑d’s message to Abraham was that Jewish kindness must be motivated by humility, not by arrogance. Therefore, the son best suited to carry on Abraham’s legacy, was Isaac, who embodied the attribute of awe and fear, qualities which, rooted in humility, make him like his father Abraham.4

Footnotes
2.
See Or Hatorah, Vayeira, p. 93.
4.
Yes, Isaac is more reserved. Isaac does not always jump in to the rescue. Isaac motivates a people to help themselves. Isaac is filled with humility. He sees the great potential within others, and that, in some case, true kindness is allowing others to solve their problems on their own. This, however, is a subject for another essay.
Rabbi Menachem Feldman serves as the director of the Lifelong Learning department at the Chabad Lubavitch Center in Greenwich, Conn.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Menachem Feldman November 17, 2016

Ishmael and the attribute of kindness That the realm of unholiness possess the attribute of kindness is explained in the Talmud (Baba Basra 10b) and Kabbalah (Eimek Hamelech, gate 14 chapter 125). That Ishmael represents the unholy kindness is explained in many commentaries. See, for example, Migaleh Amukos (Lech Licha), Hammek Davar on Deuteronomy (chapter 33:2), Sfas Emes (Sukkos 5646), Shem Mishmuel (Eikev 5677) Pri Tzadik (Genesis Chapter 11), Or Hatorah (Vayera). For further reading please see this link. Reply

Dmitry Sheinin November 16, 2016

In our Shabbat Parshah studies, a question was asked: Why Ishmael at all? What part does he have in God's plan? The best answer I heard was that, in order to choose, there needs to be a choice, i.e. One chooses between someone and someone. Of the three "non-elects" - Cain, Ishmael, Esau - it is only about Esau that we find something promising in the Torah. Reply

Dmitry November 16, 2016

what is scriptural evidence for Ishmael's purported kindness? I don't see any basis in the Torah text for your ascribing kindness to Ishmael. I don't see it even for the inferior sort of kindness that you suggest. His only act was his participation in his fathers' burial, which is merely a basic duty. Even if we bring the Midrash as evidence, we only find that he, at the age of 13, graciously agreed to be circumcised - which may be commendable but has nothing to do with kindness. Reply

John C Shore San Angelo TX November 16, 2016

Ishmael was rejected The reason Ishmael was rejected is because G-d knew that the descendants of Ishmael would be the leaders of violence around the world by the name we use now "Muslims." Since their beginning Mohammed they have advanced by war and now today they are like a cancer, slowly interring into other lands and people slowly killing people. To me Ishmael and his descendants represent all forces against G-d's plan for his followers. It's a little odd that my comments usually do not get posted because I don't always agree with the Rabbis. Reply

Shoshana November 16, 2016

Ishmael's kindness? Where do you get that “Ishmael shared Abraham’s passion for kindness”? If anything at 17-18 years Ishmael was taunting his half-brother Yitzhak causing Sarah to ask Abraham to let them go. I have no idea why translations use the term “child” (Gen 21:15) referring to Ishmael when he left with his slave mother. He was a teen taunting his little brother, typical but not very kind. Of course all of Abraham’s seed is blessed, including Ishmael, and the other sons he had after Sarah died. Once the Creator blesses someone and his seed is for good (which is also why earlier Noah could not curse Ham, but that is another subject). Ishmael would be like an ass kicking everyone (Gen 16:12), not very kind either. Please cite the Tanach stating Ishmael was kind. Reply

Anonymous Zomba November 16, 2016

Motivations behind the characters Where can I read about the fact that Isaac's character was awe and fear but motivated by kindness, while Ishmael was kindness but motivated by arrogance Reply

Anonymous November 14, 2016

Excellent article and very well written! Thanks for posting! Reply

Mark Solomon November 14, 2016

Two questions Where do we learn that Ismael had the middos of kindness? The Torah teaches that he will be a hunter and a bandit, in conflict with everyone.

Are there any commentaries on the fact that Ismael was conceived by an uncircumcised Avram, and it was only after HaShem named him Avraham, and he circumcised himself, that Yitzchok was born? Reply

Nechama November 14, 2016

Unsolicited advice I enjoyed very much the point about the motivation of kindness.
It is the motivation that makes the difference between "holier/better/cleverer than thou" attitude of unsolicited advice and the "love the neighbour (as) yourself" eye to eye attitude of help. Reply

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