by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – November 8, 2016
The Torah section of Lekh Lekha marks the beginning of a rivalry – a long standing rivalry that continues to this day. We read in this Torah section that our forefather Abraham and his wife Sarah are childless for many years (Bereshit 15:2-3). Sarah then offers her maidservant Hagar to her husband in the hope that she may bear him a child in Sarah’s stead, and, indeed, Hagar gives birth to a son, fathered by Abraham, and they call this son Yishmael (Bereshit 16). Further reading in the Torah concerning this son Yishmael along with commentaries from our Sages tell us of this son’s misbehavior, noticed especially by Sarah, as well as aggressiveness and even violence vis a vis the son that is eventually born to Sarah and Abraham by the grace of G-d Himself (Bereshit 21:9 and Rashi ad locum; Bereshit Rabbah 53:11).
In a recent discussion, the contemporary rosh yeshiva of Baltimore’s Yeshiva Ner Yisrael, R. Yissachar Frand, brought to the fore some noteworthy observations related to the above.
In the Torah, we read (Devarim 21:18-21), “If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son, who does not listen to the voice of this father and to the voice of his mother, and they discipline him, but he does not listen to them. Then his father and mother shall grasp him and take him out to the elders of his city and the gate of his place. They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not listen to our voice’…And all the men of his city shall pelt him with stones and he shall die, and you shall [thereby] destroy the evil from your midst.” The wayward and rebellious son, ben sorer u’moreh in Hebrew, is a young man who has embarked upon on a way of life that our Sages explain will eventually bring him to destruction and bloodshed. Rashi ad locum, in citing our Sages (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 68b, 71b), points out, “’The wayward and rebellious son is judged based on what would be his end’…The Torah [thereby] says, ‘Let him die innocent [so to speak] rather than die guilty [of having actually committed a capital offense]’.”
R. Frand notes that the great medieval Torah scholar R. Eliyahu Mizrachi (c. 1455 – 1525) asks that this implementation of justice in anticipation of future wrongdoing seems to contradict a principle introduced in the following Torah section concerning Yishmael. We read (Bereshit 21:17) that at the time that the young Yishmael was crying out while dying of thirst in the desert, “And G-d heard the voice of the youth and an angel of G-d called to [his mother] Hagar from the heavens and said to her, ‘…Fear not, for G-d has heeded the cry of the youth as he is there’.” Hagar is informed that her son will be treated “as he is there,” in Hebrewba’asher hu sham. Rashi ad locum cites our Sages saying that this means, “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 [Yishmael] and saying [to G-d], ‘Master of the World! He whose descendants are destined to put your children to death by thirst would You cause a well to rise up for him?’ And 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.’”
Imagine, R. Frand comments, had Yishmael not survived this episode what the world would be like! Imagine the suffering that could have been averted, not only that which the Jewish people currently suffers but that the entire world currently suffers at the hands of Yishmael’s descendants! All this suffering could have been averted had the well in the desert not miraculously appeared in order to save Hagar’s son! Indeed, this was the argument of the ministering angels to G-d: You will miraculously save this individual whose descendants will kill your children? And in response, G-d asks the angels whether the son of Hagar is currently guilty or innocent. After the angels concede that at this particular juncture in his life the young Yishmael was innocent, G-d tells them, “I judge people only based on their current status”.
R. Mizrachi, R. Frand notes, consequently puts before us what seems to be a blatant contradiction: Whereas we kill the wayward son based on anticipated future actions, G-d refuses to harm Yishmael, and even saves him, since G-d only judges an individual based on his current status!
R. Frand points out that a work by the name of Bei Chiyah suggests an answer to R. Mizrachi’s question. Our Sages (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 18a) discuss two individuals who had a similar illness or were both accused of the same crime and sentenced to the same capital punishment. Although both face identical situations, it can happen that one of the ill individuals is cured and the other dies or one of those sentenced to death is executed and the other is freed. How does this happen? We are told, “This one prayed and was answered; this one prayed and was not answered. This one prayed a complete prayer and the other one prayed an incomplete prayer.’” The answer appears to be that one prayed whole-heartedly with full devotion and intent and was therefore saved. On the other hand, the individual who had the same illness or the same sentence but did not recover or escape his punishment was lacking in the quality of his prayer. Since our Sages attribute the dichotomy of outcomes to a qualitative difference in their respective prayers and do not entertain the possibility that one had a positive outcome due to his many merits as opposed to the other’s debits, it is suggested in Bei Chiyah that we see from our Sages that one’s praying a “complete prayer” has the capacity to save him despite the “credits” or “debits” he may or may not have based on his past actions. A person may have accumulated numerous terrible sins, but the intensity of his prayer can overcome those negatives. In contrast, one may have accumulated many merits but did not adequately pray at the time of crises and may, therefore, not survive.
It is then suggested that this can help resolve the aforementioned contradiction. The reason Yishmael was saved was not only as a result of being judged based on his present status. In fact, we see from the wayward son, the ben sorer u’moreh, that one may be executed based on future deeds. However, by Yishmael there was another factor, namely ““And G-d heard the voice of the youth.” Yishmael prayed – fervently. Consequently, in spite of the fact that his descendants were destined to kill members of the Jewish nation and should have been “judged based on his end,” his intensity of prayer overcame his future faults.
In light of the above, R. Frand concludes that, since the descendants of Yishmael are not idol worshippers and are very serious about their prayers, even praying five times a day – without fail – this would seem to have saved them and given them the means to endure to this day; and, to overcome them, it would be incumbent on us to pay closer attention to our own prayers, treating our prayers with the full seriousness and intensity due them.
May we all turn to the Al-Mighty Creator of the Universe, Who is the only One Who can truly save or protect us from harm, and may we pray for our needs with full devotion, intensity, seriousness and understanding; and may G-d, in turn, bring all our sorrows and pain to an end as He ushers in a new era under the leadership of His servant, the Messiah, may he arrive speedily.