Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

Yishmael: Reflections on Origins and Current History

The yishuv of over six million Jews (kein yirbu!) in the Holy Land of Israel was once again under threat this week by vicious rocket attacks at the hands of the descendants of Yishmael placing over a million people in a state of panic and hysteria and effectively shutting down a sizeable portion of Israel for several days. To quote the penetrating words of my rebbe, Rav Mayer Twersky shlit"a, as relevant when they were written as now: "Klal Yisrael's suffering should never be dismissively, solely attributed to geopolitics and vicious anti-Semitism. These are real factors. But there is always a metaphysical reason as well which allows these evil forces to surface.">[1] It is in the spirit of this approach that this presentation is given.

Let us begin with the words of Rambam in his Iggeres Teiman addressing Yishmael's persecutions of the Jewish people in his day:

Therefore when David, of blessed memory, inspired by the holy spirit, envisaged the future tribulations of Israel, he bewailed and lamented their lot only in the Kingdom of Ishmael, and prayed in their behalf, for their deliverance, as is implied in the verse, "Woe is me, that I sojourn with Meschech, that I dwell beside the tents of Kedar." (Psalms 120:5)... No matter how much we suffer and elect to remain at peace with them, they stir up strife and sedition, as David predicted, "I am all peace, but when I speak, they are for war." (Psalms 120:7).[2]

His words are extremely prescient of our current situation.

The Torah describes the beginnings of Yishmael:

And she (Hagar) saw that she had conceived, and her mistress Sarai was degraded in her eyes...And Avram said to Sarai, "Behold your maidservant is in your hands. Do unto her as you see fit." And Sarai afflicted her and she fled...And an angel of Hashem said, "I shall greatly increase your descendants and they will be innumerable." And an angel of Hashem said, "Behold you will conceive and give birth to a child and you shall call his name Yishmael for Hashem has heard your suffering. And he shall be a wild one among men; his hand will be in all and the hand of all will be in him, and he shall dwell among all of his brethren." (Bereishis 16:4, 6, 10-12).

And she (Sarah) said to Avraham, "Chase away this maidservant and her son for he will not inherit with my son Yitzchak."...And G-d said to Avraham, "...all that Sarah tells you, hearken unto her, for Yitzchak shall be considered your progeny. And also the son of the maidservant I shall form into a nation for he is your progeny."...And the water from the flask depleted and she threw the child under one of the bushes....for she said, "May I not see the death of the child"...and she lifted her voice and cried. And G-d heard the voice of the lad and an angel of G-d called to Hagar from the heavens and said to her, "...do not be afraid for G-d has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Carry the child and place your hand on him for I shall make him into a great nation." (Bereishis 21:10, 12, 15-18)

Yishmael was born through the prayer of Hagar offered in a state of distress, and he was named for this prayer -- ישמע-קל. Subsequently, his life was saved through his own prayer, and he became a numerous nation through prayer.

It is well known that an important part of Islam is prayer. Copying the model of Yom Kippur, devout Moslems pray five times a day. In much of the Western world nowadays one can find Moslems stopping their schedules irrespective of what they are doing[3] placing the prayer mat on the floor inside or outside and praying. Because Islam abhors any images and idolatry, their conceptualization of the Divine Being is a monotheistic one, and hence they are praying to the same G-d as we are.[4] It is essential that we invest enormous effort into our prayers in order to engage properly in this part of the battle against those members of Yishmael who try to destroy us and chase us out of our land.>[5] Baruch Hashem, we have a Jewish army to help protect us, but we dare not forget Ya'akov Avinu's model of preparing for battle and for prayer especially against a nation who excels in prayer.[6] Some humble suggestions of enhancing our prayers specifically regarding protection from our enemies include: 1) reciting the parsha ha'akeida describing Yitzchak Avinu's willingness to give up his very life for Hashem transcending Yishmael's willing submission to bris mila (see below) when he was 13 years old (see Rashi to Bereishis 22:1). 2) Reciting the series of phrases beginning "Shomeir Yisrael" at the end of tachanun with concentration invoking the unique merits of Klal Yisrael. 3) Reciting at least parts of the "V'hu rachum" addition said on Mondays and Thursdays slowly and with concentration.

In Tehillim (79:6), in one of the Psalms which were recited by many communities during the Gulf War (and on Seder night), we find the following verse: "שפוך חמתך על הגוים אשר לא ידעוך ועל ממלכות אשר בשמך לא קראו" - "Pour out your wrath on the nations which do not know you and on the kingdoms which do not call out Your name." I found myself troubled by the fact that this verse does not seem to be relevant with respect to those of the Arab nations who ruthlessly attack the Jewish people since they do "know" the One and Only G-d and they do call out in His name. I was subsequently comforted by the passage in Yirmiyahu which states:

Let not the wise man take pride in his wisdom; let not the mighty take pride in his strength; let not the wealthy take pride in his wealth. Rather, only in this should one looking for pride take pride - pondering and knowing Me, for I am Hashem who does kindness, justice and charity in the land, for these I desire, says G-d. (9:22-23)

The words of Radak shed light on this verse immensely: "The knowledge of G-d consists of following His ways, to perform kindness, justice and charity, since He does these very acts." Elsewhere, in a rebuke to Shalum the son of Yoshiyahu, Yirmiyahu states: "One who judges the case of the poor and destitute, it will be good [for him]; behold that is knowing Me, says Hashem" (22:16). On this Radak tersely comments: "I have explained this on the verse "Let not the wise man, etc.". Thus, knowledge of G-d does not merely consist of intellectual contemplation of His perfection, His oneness and His Providence, but also in acting kindly to others and seeking justice for the persecuted.>[7]

Hence, those descendants of Yishmael who use their talents to maim and to kill indiscriminately, to shoot at innocent families driving on highways sometimes killing a couple leaving a whole family of orphans, who brutally stab those sitting at Shabbos dinner, who blow themselves up bombing pizzerias and hotels killing dozens of Jews, who terrorize millions with indiscriminate rocket launchings do not really know G-d even if they pray to Him. We can confidently pray, "Pour out your wrath on those who do not know you!" concerning this enemy as well.

A passage in the Zohar (2:32a) is most revealing:

R. Chiya sighed and cried and began, "And Sarai was barren and had no child." Woe for this; woe for that time that Hagar bore Yishmael. Said R. Yose to him, "Why [the cries], but afterward Sarai gave birth to a son of holy stock?" He replied..."So I heard from the mouth of R. Shimon ... 'Because Sara delayed [in having children]...this caused Hagar to inherit Sara her mistress, and she had a son from Avraham, and Avraham said, "May Yishmael live before you". Even though HKB"H informed him of the future birth of Yitzchak, Avraham cleaved to Yishmael until HKB"H responded, "And I have heard you concerning Yishmael..." Afterward he underwent circumcision and entered the holy covenant before Yitzchak entered the world. Come and see, for 400 years the guardian angel of Yishmael pleaded before HKB"H and said, "Does one who had a circumcision have a share in Your Name?" He replied: "Yes!" [The angel] replied, "But Yishmael was circumcised [and furthermore he was circumcised at 13 years old!]. Why does he not have a share in You like Yitzchak?" [Hashem] replied, "[Yitzchak] circumcised as appropriate, and properly; [Yishmael] did not do so. Furthermore, these [Yitzchak's descendants] cleave to me as appropriate when eight days old, whereas these [Yishmael's descendants] are distant from me for many days." Said [the guardian angel], "Even so, since he is circumcised should he not get a good reward because of it?"... What did HKB"H do? He distanced the bnei Yishmael from cleaving up on High and gave them a share in the Holy Land because of their circumcision. And the bnei Yishmael are destined to rule over the Hold Land when it is empty for a long time just as their circumcision is empty without completion, and they will prevent bnei Yisrael from returning to their land until that merit of the bnei Yishmael expires.'"

Here we see that Yishmael's dedication to bris mila gives them a powerful source of Heavenly merit and even a temporary right to Eretz Yisrael. But we know that concerning bris mila the Torah tells us (Bereishis 17:7): "And I will establish my covenant between Me and you and between your descendants after you for all their generations as an eternal covenant to be your G-d and for your descendants after you." This mitzva is not just an isolated one; it is the gateway to a lifetime of devotion to Hashem and His Torah. Only our dedication to this bris and what it represents individually and collectively can, in the long run, outweigh Yishmael's connection to this mitzva.

Yishmael is called a "pere adam - a wild one among men". Rav Yechiel Weitzman[8] explains this as follows: The term "Adam" - reminiscent of Adam HaRishon - used here is indicative of the fact that Yishmael's descendants will have a deep, spiritual connection to G-d, but it will be with wildness and without any proper restraint. Indeed, Yishmael's willingness to kill and even commit suicide purportedly for G-d with cries of "Allahu akhbar - G-d is great!" has been readily apparent throughout history and especially in our era. What are we to learn from this?

Rav Weitzman suggests that the unconventional warfare which Yishmael launches against the Jewish people is designed to shake us out our sense of reliance on our own efforts alone and to realize that "Hashem Ish milchama - only G-d is the real Master of war" and that our victory over our enemies is in His hands alone. We are fortunate to have been blessed with a standing Jewish army ready to defend the Jewish people and to avenge attacks against them. In the famous echoing words of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l (Kol Dodi Dofeik): "For the first time in the history of our exile, Providence surprised our enemies with a rattling discovery - that Jewish blood is not cheap!...The Torah has constantly taught us that is permissible and even one's holy obligation to protect himself...Baruch shehecheyanu laz'man hazeh that Jews have within their power - with the help of Hashem - to defend themselves." But herein lies a great test. Will the Jewish people see within the Jewish army an agent of Avinu ShebaShamayim Who, in His kindness, has provided a vehicle for the defense of His beloved people? Or will they see within this precious organization an independent defender of the Jewish people, one which allows them to "take their fate into their own hands" without realizing and actualizing our eternal covenant with HKB"H?[9] Losing sight of G-d Who is constantly involved in our lives undermines a central tenet of all of our avodas Hashem and endangers our very security (see Vayikra 26:27-28).

This challenge was one of the problems with the request to appoint a king. The Shoftim fought the wars of Israel in an obviously providential way. By appointing a king, the Jewish people's wars would be fought in a more natural way with the associated challenge of losing sight of the fact that it would only be with Divine assistance and intervention that they would be successful. (See Malbim on Shmuel I 8:6.) King David, in one of his first wars as king against the Pelishtim, was commanded not to wage war against them until he would hear the sound of steps moving in the trees nearby (Shmuel II 5:24). The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 142) dramatically presents the fact that the Philistines were already within 4 amos of the Jewish army, but King David still did not allow his soldiers to fight since he did not yet hear this Divine sign. "Better we die innocent and righteous and not wicked (by violating Hashem's command). Let us place our trust in HKB"H!" Once they did so, the trees rustled and they immediately battled against the Pelishtim leading to victory. At the beginning of Dovid Hamelech's long and successful career as a warrior and great defender of the Jewish people, he first had to demonstrate utter reliance on the true Ish Milchama. This test is ever more relevant today.

Let the words of Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer (31) serve as a guide to us in our struggle against Yishmael.

Why is he called "Yishmael"? Because HaKadosh Baruch Hu will ultimately hearken unto the groans of the Nation from all that which the children of Yishmael will perpetrate in the land in the end of days. Therefore his name was called "Yishmael".

It appears that Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer finds difficulty with Yishmael's name since the Torah gives as the reason for its selection to be "כי שמע ד' אל עניך" (Bereishis 16:11). Since שמע is in the past tense, his name should have been שמעאל or שמואל. Why is the future tense,ישמע , used at the beginning of his name? To this question the Midrash answers that his name contains an allusion to the fact that in the future, the Jewish people will scream out to G-d, and He will answer their prayers. Thus Yishmael, in his very name, included an allusion to his ultimate downfall as a result of his descendants' persecutions of B'nei Yisrael. May Hashem guide us to always remember Him and His Torah and to call out to Him intensely for His protection, and may we merit the day in which all nations will join the Jewish people in calling His great Name.


[1] See Miracles and Mourning on Torahweb which was written in response to Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

[2] Translation from Iggeret Teiman, translated by Boaz Cohen, 1952 available here.

[3] I recall that in Ramat Beit Shemesh, one of our "cousins" who was in charge of selling pizza disappeared for quite a while. When he returned, he was censured by a Jewish worker, "Fouad, where were you, there are customers!" To this, Fouad replied, "Customers! I was praying mincha!"

[4] See Rambam (Ma'achalos Asuros 11:7) and Teshuvos HaRambam (448).

[5] See "Rachel's Weeping and Tefila B'eis Tzara" for further expansions on this theme.

[6] I heard this point in a recorded shiur from Rav Moshe Shapiro zt"l.

[7] This commentary is somewhat in contrast to those Rishonim who saw in the former verse a directive to engage in chakira or philosophical analysis of the Divine. (See Seifer HaBris and introduction to the Leiv Tov elucidation of Chovos HaLevavos by Rav Pinchas Lieberman.)

[8] See "Ishmaelite Exile", by Rav Yechiel Weitzman, a truly eye-opening book, for many more sources on this topic.

[9] Telling is the "compromise" of Ben Gurion when the religious and the secular debated the inclusion of mention of G-d in the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel. It was decided to write מתוך בטחון בצור ישראל - with confidence in the Rock of Israel. The religious would interpret this as referring to G-d, the secular to Tzahal! Oy vey!

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