Call me Ishmael

parshat lech lecha, genesis 16 – 25

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on November 3rd 2022. We discover that when the younger son Isaac is chosen, the older son Ishmael’s banishment in some way endears him to his father and latter Rabbinic and Muslim commentators. By being rejected Ishmael may actually provide an alter ego of the Jewish people. We will discuss…

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Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha, normally associated with the birth of the Jewish people.  Reading it afresh this year we discover that when the younger son Isaac is chosen, it is at the expense of the older son Ishmael’s banishment.  We explore how Ishmael’s role as the outcast in some way endears him to his father and latter Rabbinic and Muslim commentators. By being rejected Ishmael may actually provide an alter ego and narrative to the Jewish people. So with apologies to Herman Melville, join us for Call Me Ishmael.


So yeah, we’re going back to Moby Dick. It feels like we’re back in high school. For those of you who have forgotten your high school class in literature, it is the first three words of Moby Dick. And he Ishmael is the narrator of the whole story. And he kind of disappears. He’s characterized as someone with little or no money in his purse, nothing to do. He says, If I stay here any longer, I’m gonna start hitting people. So that’s when I take to the sea. So he’s kind of a wanderer. And maybe that’s why Melville called them Ishmael. But more important to us, he kind of disappears in the narrative until the end when he’s the only survivor. So normally, as I said, in the intro, when we read Lech Lecha, we are focused on the birth of the Jewish people on the amazing narrative, of Avram and Sarai leaving their homeland and going on this amazing journey and pilgrimage. But along the way, we get this breadth of Ishmael this other character, who, like Ishmael in Moby Dick appears, and then seemingly kind of a disappears. So, I think I’d like to introduce this whole episode, because we are talking about Isaac and Ishmael, the two sons of Abraham, with a quote from Robert Alter, the great modern commentary as literature on the Bible. And he says the entire Book of Genesis is about the reversal of the iron law of primogeniture, about the election through some devious twist of destiny of a youngest son to carry on the line. So, if last week, we talked about the flip side of choosing a Noah choosing an Abraham was regretting another choice. Today, we’re going to talk about if the narrative of all of Genesis is choosing, not the firstborn son, the second born son, and then the flip side of that is the rejection of the firstborn son. Or to put it in a more ironic way. If primogeniture is a sense of entitlement of the first born, the Bible systemically rejects the first boy. So it’s the rejection of the entitled, if you will. And that’s kind of an interesting way to look at the, the dynamics of not only Ishmael and Isaac, but Esau and Yaakov. What do you think, Rabbi?

Adam Mintz  04:05

I mean, that is the story. Actually, last week, we were given a little glimpse of that, because the story of Noah getting drunk after the flood, there was Shem, Ham and Yefet, and the one who’s really chosen is sham, who turns out to be the youngest son. So, we get that a little bit there. But here for the first time, we get the idea that Abraham has two sons, Ishmael should have been the chosen son. He was born, you know, Sarah suggested that he bear a child with Hagar with the maidservant. And he was born and he should have been the one and there should not have been any story. But Sarah gets jealous and God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah. So, the story is the fact that the older one is put aside for the younger one. And the famous introduction to the story of the binding of Isaac tells us that God says to Abraham, take your son, your favorite son, the son that you like more than anybody else. And Rashi says, why does he have to say so many things just take, say, your son, take your son, there’s no reason to take your son. He says, I have two sons. Take your son you love. He says, I have two sons that I love. Take the son that she only wanted. Well, I have two sons, the only one so they’re two. They’re one mother. And so therefore, Abraham wasn’t so sure which son it was. God had to tell him which son it was,

Geoffrey Stern  05:33

Man, you hit the nail on the head, right There’s no question about it. I think to me, what’s intriguing is when you systemically, reject the firstborn, and you pick what you normally call the runt of the litter, then the first port becomes the rejected. And that’s kind of what’s fascinating here. And it’s fascinating, as you say, when in that episode, where God says, pick your son, Abraham keeps going back to his quote, unquote, rejected son, who is the first born. So here we go. We are in Genesis 16. And Sarai, Abraham’s wife had bought him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid servant whose name was Hagar. And so, I said to Abram, look, God has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid, perhaps I shall have a child through her. And Abraham headed Saria’s request. So, I Abam’s wife took her maid Hagar the Egyptian, after Abraham had dwelt in the land of Canaan 10 years, and gave her to her husband Abraham as a concubine. I just want to note that the Hebrew here is וַתִּתֵּ֥ן אֹתָ֛הּ לְאַבְרָ֥ם אִישָׁ֖הּ ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה. So even though the translation is a concubine, I think Rabbi you’ll agree with me אִישָׁ֖הּ ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה  is as a wife, in a sense. So, then it goes on. And he says, And he cohabitated with Hagar, and she conceived, and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered and her esteem. So here if you give me a little literary license, either Hagar God looked down upon Sarai, because actually, she had delivered and Sarai was barren, or Sarai is somehow projecting on to what Hagar must be thinking, because then it says in verse five, and Sarai said to Abram, the one done to me is your fault. She blames it on Abram, I, myself, put my maid in your bosom now that she sees that she is pregnant, and I am lowered in her esteem, God decide between you and me, Abram said to Sarai your maid is in your hands deal with her as you think right, then, so Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her. So there is a lot of focus later, when Ishmael is actually born, that he misbehaves, and he is thrown out of the house, but tellingly, even here, before he is born, Sarai sees a reflection in her Hagar’s attitude, and already acts in such a manner that Hagar ran away? That is pretty profound, don’t you think?

Adam Mintz  08:54

It is pretty profound, you know, think about what it means to run away. Here’s a maid servant. She’s has nothing. She comes from Egypt. She’s living in the home, let’s say of a successful man, you know, in Canaan, if she runs away, she’s nothing. Can you imagine, people lead like an au pair, who comes from a foreign country running away from the family that she’s working for? They’re helpless. So it’s a big deal that she runs away. It must have been pretty horrible.

Geoffrey Stern  09:24

So runaway is one way to look at it. But if the circumstances were such as though she had no choice, in a sense, she was exiled. She was pushed out and remember as a Jew, reading the Bible, I have a certain sensitivity to people who are exiled. So that becomes a fascinating double entendre here, and then it goes on … and remember, Ishmael is not born yet. A messenger of God found her by a Spring of water in the wilderness the spring on the road to Shur, (8) and said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” And she says, I’m running from my mistress. And he says, Go back to your mistress submit to her harsh treatment. And then the messenger of God says in verse 10, I will greatly increase your offspring, and they shall be too many to count, the Messenger of God said to her further, behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son, you shall call him Ishmael.  So, it’s almost a parallel story of a latest story that we will read, where a Sarah actually rejects and throws out Hagar. she also comes to a spring of water. And she also is given a blessing. This is almost like practice, like when children watch the scary movie over and over again, so that they can wrap their arms around it, but already, you get a sense of there is this respect, and this sensitivity, and this simpatico with Ishmael. The Rabbis said that there were only a few people who were named before they were born. And Ishmael is one. So here you shall call him Ishmael… he’s in a select few of people. As much as we know the later story just forgets about Ishmael. At this point. You could almost say to me, I don’t know where this story is going. I don’t know who’s going to be the hero.

Adam Mintz  11:49

Yeah, I mean, that’s good. Let me just to go back to just said somebody good things here. The fact that the story in this week’s power shot and next week’s PowerShell are basically you know, the same story. There’s only one difference in this week’s parsha Hagar gets banished in next week’s Parasha she doesn’t like Ishmael, Ishmael is a bad influence on her son. So, what happens to Hagar in both the cases is the same. But Sarah’s view is different. In this week’s parsha, you have this funny thing she’s competitive, you have to understand that right? He’s taking another wife. Not really, because clearly they had this idea of maidservants. But Sarah get’s jealous. Next week, she’s worried about the kid. And he’s a bad influence, the older son, which we can understand right… the teenage brother who gets the younger brother in trouble?

Geoffrey Stern  12:45

Absolutely. You know, normally, when we discuss a parsha, we don’t talk about what happens at toward the end. But I think that’s why my comment about Moby Dick and Melville is so important that Ismael is a figure who gets forgotten. But if you know all the stories coming in the future, we already can see stuff here, that gives impact. And if we only discussed it later on, we would forget this crucible, this beginning of the whole account. So, as I read on, it says, You shall call him Yishmael and God has paid heed to your suffering, he shall be a wild ass of a person, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him. Here again, we see another motif where both Ishmael and ESAV they have the kind of skill set that you might need going forward in Jewish tradition going to the Shoftim (Judges) going forward in conquering the land, they are the people that have the skill set to conquer the land to make their way and, and in all of their cases, they have their supporters in this particular case we’ll see that Abraham really is consistent in his love and his dedication to Ishmael. In the case of Esau and Yaakov. Again, we have a Yaakov kind of likes Esau because he’s out there hunting and stuff. So this is another kind of theme that I want us all to keep in mind. It’s kind of like we’re repeating this story over and over again to learn something from it.

Adam Mintz  14:44

Good. I mean, that’s all good. The fact that the father seems to favor the son who loses. Now you could explain that that the father always favors the older son, but you could also explain it the way you just explained it Riskin always says it that way that no the father saw something in the older son that maybe the father lacked or maybe he saw that that would be important for the future. And therefore, he actually preferred that. Now the older son did not win. But the father saw something that was special in the older son.

Geoffrey Stern  15:16

Absolutely. So, here we are, and we are starting to see some patterns. And the patterns are fascinating, but the story moves on. And the story then goes to and God said to Abraham in Genesis 17:; 15, As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. So changing Abraham’s name and Sarai name is almost like a rebirth. It’s שינוי שם משנה מזל and I will bless her indeed, and I will give her a son by her I will bless her that should give rise to nations rulers of people. Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed as he said to himself, can a child be born to a man 100 years old? Or can Sשרשי bear a child at 90? Verse 18. And Abraham said to God, Oh, that Ishmael might live by your favor. In the Hebrew it is ל֥וּ יִשְׁמָעֵ֖אל יִחְיֶ֥ה לְפָנֶֽיךָ. And the Ramban says its meaning is that he live and his seed shall always exist. So here, if you follow this interpretation, or even if you don’t, you would think that when the son from his wife is announced, his first thought would not be about his previous son, his son through his handmaid, so whether you give the Ramban’s interpretation or not, all of a sudden, Abraham consistently is thinking about Ishmael. But if you follow the Ramban, he’s saying, he wants to make sure that Ishmael is not displaced. I think that is fascinating. And then it goes on. And it continues in verse 20. And it says, as for Ishmael, God says, I have headed you, I hereby bless him, I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of 12 chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation. But my covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year, done speaking with him, God was gone from Abraham. So the meeting was over. But I had never realized Rabbi that God had promised Ishmael 12 tribes. I mean, in response to Abraham’s request, I just said never resonated to me. And it really does give power to these parallel stories and Abraham’s dual sense of love for his both his children.

Adam Mintz  18:29

Yeah, I mean, it’s really very powerful. And you know, it seems that Abraham… the second time, when he sends Hagar away with Yishmael that he sends them with that with a good knapsack full of stuff, which also is interesting.

Geoffrey Stern  18:44

Yeah. Okay. So so we get to the point now, that Yishmael is cast out. And at this point, we have a commentary like Rashi on 21: 10 says, the matter distressed Abraham greatly for it concerned a son of his וַיֵּ֧רַע הַדָּבָ֛ר מְאֹ֖ד בְּעֵינֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֥ת בְּנֽוֹ. And the story goes way beyond our parsha, and we can only be like a prequel to what happens. But to do that prequel what ultimately happens is that Hagar and Ishmael are cast out, Sarah again has an issue with them. In this case, she says that he is being Mitzachek… . He is fooling with Isaac. Some commentaries say that he was sexually perverse. Some say that he was making fun of him, which is the obvious explanation one modern day commentary says that he was Isaacing him …. he was trying to say that I am the firstborn. But whatever the case was, the concern of Sarah is I think I consistent that she wants to make sure that the covenant is with her son, Isaac. And the concern of Abraham is also consistent, that he is concerned about his other son, he loves him as well. And I think this is a powerful message. And, you know, I’ll go right to the end game rabbi, I’ve always been struck by the fact that on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out being exiled. And on the second day, we read the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, and you know, there are all these modern day. Commentaries, I’d love to find out the original source of who decided what the Torah reading was for each day.

Adam Mintz  21:13

Goes back to the Talmud, it’s about 2000 years old.

Geoffrey Stern  21:17

I don’t know if the Talmud gives a reason. But at the end of the day, if you get rid of all the commentaries, you’re dedicating day one, to the narrative of Ishmael. And a two is the narrative of Isaac, I mean, that’s the long and the short of it. Or to put it slightly differently. You’re dedicating day one to the test of Abraham with Hagar and Ishmael, and day two to the test of Abraham with his son Isaac. Fascinating.

Adam Mintz  21:50

That is fascinating. And the lesson of the banishment of Ishmael is the opposite lesson as the Akedah right, so that’s interesting, all interesting.

Geoffrey Stern  22:04

So it is fascinating. So what I want to do is it’s fascinating where this story goes, in Genesis 25, and this is way beyond a today’s Pasha. It says that Sarah dies after the akedah, and that Abraham then marries a woman named Keturah. And the tradition is that that is Hagar. She was named Ketorah according to Rashi, because her deeds were as beautiful (sweet) as incense (Ketoreth) (Genesis Rabbah 61). One of the Midrashim says she was שֶׁמְקֻטֶּרֶת מִצְווֹת וּמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים full of mitzvot. And this takes on a whole new story in the later Pirkei D’Rav Eliezer and i enjoin you to all see the source notes on Sefira where I quote at length Pirkei D’Rab Eliezer which was written in the much later in the eight hundreds. That says that, basically what happened was that during Sarah’s life, Abraham had asked, could he go visit his son Ishmael. I mean, it almost sounds like after a divorce, where you asked your wife can I go visit my child from my previous marriage, and in Perkei D’Rav Eliezer 30 that he gets permission from Sarah to go visit is Ishmael as long as he doesn’t get off the camel, meaning to say I think that, you know, don’t stay there, don’t plant any seeds there. Make sure that you come back. And it’s a long story. And he goes to the wilderness of Paran. And he meets his wife. And he says, Where is Ishmael and Hagar and she says they’re out, you know, picking dates. And he says, Well, I’m a visitor, could you feed me? And she goes, I got no food. And to make a long story short, he says, could you give a message to smell and tell him that an old man came and that he should basically change the entrance to his house; his threshold. And according to Perkei D’Rav Natan Ishmael comes back and goes you know what happened? And she says this old man came and he asked about you and he told me to change the threshold of my house. And he understood, Ishmael understood that meant to change his wife, so he changes his wife. And again, Abraham comes back a while later. And this time the story repeats itself. And this time he says to the wife, do you have anything to feed me, and she feeds him as it happens, she feeds him and he tells her to tell Ishmael about this. And Ishmael is told that his threshold is good. And that’s the end of the story in Perkei D’Rav Natan. The amazing thing Rabbi that I discovered is that there is a Muslim version of this story. And the scholars all try, they’re crunching their heads, they’re, they’re there twiddling their beards to find out, which was the original story, and that interests me less. But in the Muslim version that is in the Sefira notes, it almost goes pretty much the same. In that version, Hagar is no longer alive, he comes to visit his son. And again, he tells her to change wives, they change wives. But the difference is that in the Muslim version, his feet are washed by her, they come to a place called Maquom. And then he helps him build a temple. And according to Muslim tradition, this is Abraham and Ishmael building the Kaaba in Mecca. And there is part of the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, that involves ceremonies that kind of re-enact this whole episode. So, it is absolutely fascinating on a number of levels. Number one, since we are in the parsha which is about pilgrimage, we can’t but say that Haj is the same as the Hebrew word Hag, which is the word for three times a year of making the pilgrimage. So, we are united at that level. But to me, it is just fascinating that we share this story. And I think there are multiple places where Islam has either preserved Midrashim, or introduced Midrashim that were picked up by the rabbis. But it is it is absolutely fascinating how we share the story of a smell. Have you heard this before?

Adam Mintz  27:54

Yes, I have heard this before. The fact that there are shared traditions between the Jews and the Muslims is not surprising. You see, the Muslims believe that they are line when through Ishmael. So therefore, Ishmael needs to be the winner. Not Isaac, now the Torah has Isaac is the winner. But what the Muslim traditions stories have, they say even though Isaac was the winner, but he was only what appeared to be the winner. Everybody thought he was the winner. But actually quietly, what Abraham was doing was he was going out to the desert. And he was building Mecca, you know, the temple in Mecca. So, it’s really a very interesting thing. You know, how can you have Ishmael be the winner? When the Torah says that he’s not the winner? And the answer is that they have this this underlying current, which says that Abraham was more interested. Now, it’s not made up. And this is the point, Geoffrey that you made at the beginning. And that is, it’s not made up. Abraham likes Ishmael. He may even prefer Ishmael. So, the bottom line is that from the Torah, obviously, even though Abraham prefers Ishmael, but Isaac is the one who’s chosen Isaac is the one who has the Akeda, and all those kinds of things. But the idea that Abraham should prefer Ishmael, it’s not as if the Moslems were making things up out of thin air, there really was something that was substantial about all of this.

Geoffrey Stern  29:33

So we don’t have a lot of time. But let me move it to the third religion of Abraham, in Galatians, which is about Paul otherwise known as Saul, a student of Rabbi Gamliel… Paul says, and he’s talking to a bunch of Jews who want to keep this new version of Judaism for only the circumcised and they want to keep keeping the laws, and he brings up Ishmael and Isaac. And he says that, Isaac was the son of promise. Isaac was the promised child. And Ishmael was that natural child, we’ve heard that concept before. And he compares the Jews to the older son. By the way, when you hear the Pope or whatever, saying we love the Jewish people, they are older brothers, implicitly saying that we are the oldest sons, the older brothers we’re not chosen. But that’s another topic. But the fascinating thing is, and I don’t want to comment on Paul or the New Testament, and the whole concept of supersessionism, which is where they took over the covenant. But it is fascinating to me, that Paul does the obvious. He compares the Jews to the exiled Ishmael… he says that you got the Torah in Sinai in Arabia. And we have Midrashim that say we got the torah in neutral land outside of the land of Israel. It is fascinating that we, as the Jews could easily be compared to the rejected son, who happens to be the entitled son, who is rejected by our tradition. It’s a fantastic irony. And the one thing that comes to my mind is Paul talks about the first wife, and at this point, we should all be confused, because we don’t know for Abraham who the first wife or the first mother is, and last week’s parsha we had an amazing Haftorah which happened to be my Bar Mitzvah haftora and it talks about רׇנִּ֥י עֲקָרָ֖ה לֹ֣א יָלָ֑דָה, that the barren women shall rejoice because they are the blessed and at the end of the day rabbi, what we do find throughout all of Genesis is the miracle of birth. And that ultimately, is what we are celebrating here. Whether it’s the miracle of birth from someone barren, or a surrogate, we are all joined at the hip. And I just find that the story of Ishmael who ultimately was loved by the rabbi’s. We have rabbis called Rabbi Ishmael multiple Rabbis called Rabbi Ishmael we have no rabbis called Esau, you know, so, there is this love relationship and this kindred experience with Ishmael that I feel we cannot ignore and comes through loud and clear in this parsha and the narrative to follow.

Adam Mintz  33:16

Thank you so much Geoffrey. This is an amazing topic. It really there’s so much food for thought enjoy Lech Lecha everybody. And we look forward to seeing you next week. Shabbat shalom.

Geoffrey Stern  33:26

Shabbat Shalom to you all.

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Listen to last year’s Lech Lecha Madlik Podcast: Abraham’s Epic Journey and Our Own

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