In this week’s reading we undergo an emotional rollercoaster. The continuity of the Jewish people is being toyed with. Abraham is promised several times that his progeny will be many: they are set to be “a great nation,” “the dust of the Earth,” and “the stars of the sky.” However, Abraham and Sarah are unable to conceive! Abraham pleads with God to give him a child. We must understand the significance of that passage (Genesis 15). The very first time a man is ever recorded as speaking to God in history, he is putting in a request for future generations. Sarah takes initiative and gives her handmaid Hagar to Abraham, thus creating Ishmael. Abraham is told that Ishmael will not be his real descendant! They are promised another son, but at this point they cannot even believe it. Their response is one of “laughter” at the biological impossibility of conceiving a child at such an elderly age. It is not so much as their lack of faith in God being able to help them past the biological concerns, as much as their disbelief that the process of becoming “a great nation” has been messed up so many times. After the miraculous conception and birth of Isaac, Abraham creates a huge feast and the story should be over – the Jewish nation is born. The commandment of God to sacrifice Isaac remains one of the most shocking twists in any narrative every written in all of literary history.
(I know that many people who read and write on this week’s Parsha focus on this story of the Binding of Isaac, and for that reason that I will not write anymore on this topic. If anyone wants to know more about it I will be happy to discuss in another forum)
While all of this drama is happening, the Torah takes a second to zoom in on another story that branched off of our main narrative – the story of Ishmael. God commands Abraham to send away Ishmael and Hagar from his house into the desert. Can you imagine how tough it would be for Abraham, the archetype of kindness, to banish his own son and wife and cut ties with them forever?
Hagar and Ishmael run out of water in the desert and are on the brink of death because of their thirst. Just before it is too late, God calls out to her (through an angel):
‘What is wrong, Hagar? Do not be frightened; for God has heard the boy’s voice, there in the place he is….’ God opened her eyes and she saw a well, and she went and filled the flask with water, and helped the boy to drink.
The Sages make a very interesting observation about the wording in this passage. What do the words “there in the place he is – ba’asher hu sham” come to teach us? They maintain that it is not referring to the physical location of Ishmael at the time, but rather his moral standing and spiritual level:
The angels accused Ishmael, saying that his descendants would one day persecute the children of Israel. ‘What is he now?’ asked God, ‘innocent or guilty?’ ‘Innocent,’ replied the angels. God then said, ‘I judge a person only on the basis of where he is in the present: there, where he is – ba’asher hu sham.’ (Bereishit Raba 54:14, also quoted by Rashi in his commentary to the verse)
Despite all of the terrible things that the nation of Ishmael would do, God was unwilling to compromise on this ideal and punish Ishmael based on the future. The entire doctrine of free will demands that one cannot be punished for something he has not yet done.
This concept of ba’asher hu sham actually extends past its logical extreme. It makes sense that one should not be punished for what he (or his descendants) will do in the future, but what about one’s past? The Sages have stated in many places that Ishmael was a very sinful teenager. Some say he used to commit adultery, murder, and idolatry. Others say he used to purposefully break every commandment in the Torah! There exists the concept of repentance in Judaism, but even that only helps after hard work and serious effort, neither of which Ishamel seemed to emulate!
There is a very striking case in the Talmud Tractate Kiddushin: If a reputably evil man proposes to a woman (mekadesh – a legally binding agreement) on the condition that he is righteous, his proposal is valid. The Sages state: “perhaps at the very moment that he said those words he had repented and become righteous.” It does not matter if five seconds prior he sinned and five seconds after he will sin. It is possible for him, in that specific moment, to be righteous. How can we make sense of this?
The answer is simple yet profound. We usually view repentance as being a long process dealing with successes and failures, a journey of struggling. However, there exists a different, perhaps more effective form of repentance. God is the ruler of all of humanity and when a living being cries out to Him in sincere prayer and tears, He will never turn them down. Ishmael could have sinned before, but it does not matter. These facts about his past sins and the details of his future wrongdoings are irrelevant because Ishmael cried out sincerely to God. This evil man who proposes to this woman may have undergone this sincere change of heart in that split moment. The Sages felt that the chance of any person changing at any given moment in time is high enough that this evil man’s condition could have been fulfilled.
There is a similar story found in the end of II Kings (also found in Isaiah) about the King Hezekiah. The prophet Isaiah comes to him and tells him that since he has sinned, he is going to die of his illness, and there is nothing he can do to prevent it. The Sages add in Hezekiah’s response: “End your prophecy and go! For I have received this teaching from the house of my father: Even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he should not refrain from praying for mercy.” Hezekiah “turns to the wall” and prays, and God answers him and saves him.
This story is particularly relevant to the theme of repentance, as exemplified by the fact that it was chosen as the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh HaShana, but it also teaches us an important lesson in the broader picture of our lives. Judaism studies, celebrates, and learns from its past and it is a religion that is based on hoping for and striving towards a better future, yet we must not forget the significance of the present. Do not despair if your past is not what you wanted and do not even worry if you do not have a solid plan for the future. There is value in the fact that you are living the present properly.
I would like to add a personal note. One of my best friends was almost killed in a terrorist attack this week in Jerusalem. A terrorist drove a car going full speed at a group of pedestrians trying to kill them. In complete hysteria my friend “cried out” and was saved by a miracle: as the car traveled a mere four feet to his side injuring those right next to him he was untouched. “Even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he should not refrain from praying for mercy.”
Jonathan Levine grew up in San Diego, California, and was part of the West Coast NCSY Regional Board in high school. He was very active in NCSY and in JSU throughout his time on the West Coast. He is currently studying in Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem.