Dear Jew in the City-
At the end of his life, Yishmael did teshuva. According to Jewish sources, will there ever be peace between Jews and Arabs?
There’s a lot to unpack here so let’s start with Yishmael.
When Avraham and Sarah didn’t have children, Sarah suggested that Avraham conceive with her handmaid, an Egyptian woman named Hagar. The offspring of this union was named Yishmael (see Genesis chapter 16). Later, Sarah gave birth to a son, Yitzchak. When she saw Yishmael “מצחק,” she had Avraham expel him from the household. This pained Avraham to do but God told him to listen to Sarah because Yishmael had his own destiny to fulfill (Genesis 21).
Now, what exactly did Yishmael do wrong? מצחק in this verse is usually translated along the lines of “making fun” but the commentators express a number of opinions as to the specific nature of Yishmael’s offense; I’ll share just one. Bereishis Rabbah (53:11) records a three-way debate on this question in which Rabbi Akiva opines that Yishmael violated the three cardinal sins. Rabbi Akiva illustrates that this same Hebrew verb is used to refer to adultery (Genesis 39:17), idolatry (Exodus 32:6) and bloodshed (in II Sam. 2:14). The Tosefta objects to the possibility that such things might have been going on in Avraham’s house but the fact that the Torah permits such a reading is telling.
We see that Yitzchak and Yishmael were ultimately reconciled from Genesis 25:9, in which we are told that “Yitzchak and Yishmael, (Avraham’s) sons, buried him in the Machpeila cave….” Why is Yitzchak, the younger son, listed before Yishmael, the firstborn? Rashi on this verse cites the Midrash Rabbah that Yishmael repented and now deferred to Yitzchak as their father’s primary heir (see also Baba Basra 16b).
So, whatever problems we may have with Yishmael’s descendants, it doesn’t go back to his expulsion because Yitzchak and Yishmael settled their differences in their lifetime.
Of course, even in Biblical times we had our problems with our uncle Yishmael’s descendants. Consider Isaiah chapter 21, “The harsh prophecy regarding Arabia” (starting in verse 13), which begins, “In the forest of Arabia you lodged, on the roads of your cousins….” Who are our cousins in Arabia? The Arab nations, who are the descendants of Yishmael. (This predates the founding of Islam by many centuries. Remember, not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arab!) The Midrash Tanchuma, cited by Rashi to varying degrees on Genesis 21:17 and Isaiah 21:14, explains the event leading to this “harsh prophecy.” When the Jews were exiled by Nebuchadnezzar, the refugees expected their cousins to have mercy on them and to provide them with bread and water. Instead, they fed them salted fish and gave them skins filled with air. When the Jews thirstily inhaled this air, their stomachs burst and they died.
Nevertheless, we see that Yishmael was considered an acceptable Jewish name in the Biblical and Talmudic periods. Aside from Avraham’s son, we see other Bible figures named Yishmael in Tanach – Yishmael ben Nesanyahu (Jeremiah 40, et al.), Yishmael ben Pashchur (Ezra 10), Yishmael ben Atzeil (I Chronicles 8), Zevadyahu ben Yishmael (II Chronicles 19) and Yishmael ben Yehochanan (II Chronicles 23) – all Jewish! Plus there’s the famous Rabbi Yishmael, whose accounting of Torah-study methodologies is recited every day as part of the morning service. Clearly, Yishmael was not always an unthinkable Jewish name, probably because our differences with the original Yishmael were ancient history.
So, will we ever be reconciled with our Arab cousins as our ancestor Yitzchak was reconciled with his brother Yishmael? I expect so, though there’s not a lot that addresses this directly.
The aforementioned Baba Basra 16b illustrates that, while Yitzchak was reconciled with his brother Yishmael, Yaakov was not similarly reconciled with his brother Eisav, despite the Torah’s account of a civil reunion. (While Yishmael is the biological and/or spiritual ancestor of the Arabs and the Muslims, respectively, Eisav – also known as Edom – is the biological and/or spiritual forebear of the Romans and, ostensibly, the Christian faiths.) Our messianic prophecies focus more on our eventual reconciliation with Edom than with Yishmael. For example, Obadiah 1:21 tells us that “saviors will ascend the mountain of Zion to judge the mountain of Eisav and the kingdom will be God’s.”
In fact, I only found one reference to the fate of Yishmael’s descendants in messianic times. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 28) describes Avraham praying at the “covenant between the parts” (Genesis 15) that his descendants not be enslaved by four kingdoms: Edom, Persia, Babylonia and Yishmael. (It cites a verse referring to each of these empires that connects it to the verse in Genesis.) When discussing Yishmael, it says “upon whom the son of David (i.e., the Moshiach) will sprout.” So here we have an oblique reference to the Moshiach overcoming the Arab nations; I have found literally nothing else.
Not that we need anything because the point of the messianic era isn’t conquest, it’s peace. Generally speaking we are told such things as “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks; nation will not raise sword against nation and they will not practice war any longer” (Isaiah 2:4) and “on that day, Hashem will be One and His Name, One” (i.e., everyone will recognize God and worship Him – Zechariah 14:9).
So what will happen to Yishmael at the end of days? Presumably the same thing that will happen to everyone else. As we recite in the High Holidays prayers, “Then everyone (i.e., Jews and non-Jews) will form a cohesive unit to perform Your will with pure sincerity.”
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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