Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Teshuvah of Yishmael

My article in Yeshiva University's "Rosh HaShanah To-Go" is now available on-line for download, here. [On the same page, you can retrieve my article from last year, "The Drama of Tashlich."]

The piece is about Yishmael's possible teshuvah, and an attempt to understand why Yishmael's eviction and rescue are included in our Rosh HaShanah Torah reading.

To me, the Divine verdict that Yishmael is a "tzaddik" at the moment he cries out - despite his horrific past - is the greatest confirmation of the value of thoughts of teshuvah.

As a Jew of our age, still staggered by yesterday's murders, it's hard to read something redemptive about Yishmael, putative ancestor of the biggest murderers of Jews of our time. But the story is there, and the sources are there, and Rosh HaShanah is here, so read it I must, no?

My conclusion, for those who won't read the rest of the article:
[We] may also suggest that Yishmael is a human being who learned from his punishment and managed to correct his path and find his way to God. In this sense, Yishmael is a potent model for Rosh haShanah.

Many of us have difficulty relating to Yitzchak, who went willingly to be bound and slaughtered, who needs not the privilege of repentance for he is an עולה תמימה , a perfect offering. Yitzchak’s death sentence was handed down in response to no sin of his own, and so he is a distant role model. Yishmael, on the other hand, evicted from his father’s home with Divine approval, may resonate with the child of Avraham who arrives at Rosh HaShanah on the heels of a monthlong personal audit that has turned up more red ink than black.

The heart of our Torah reading on the first day of Rosh haShanah is still the story of Sarah, but on the Day of Judgment let us be edified and inspired by its epilogue, the exile of a young man into a harsh world, and his ultimate return.

I also wonder about a point I included in a footnote - the way we read about Yishmael's eviction on Rosh HaShanah, and the eviction of the Sa'ir la'Azazel, frequently associated with Esav, on Yom Kippur. I don't have anything further on this, just noting the parallel.


  1. For a really good development of the theme of teshuva as related to the two se'erim on Yom Kippur and the parallel between them and the stories of the exile of Yishmael and the binding of Yitzhak may I recommend Dr. Yael Ziegler's shiur on Parshat Acharei Mot Kedoshim found on KMTT (Yeshivat Gush Etzion's podcasts) here:
    (It's date is Tuesday April 24, 2007 in case this address is too unwieldy)
    I have listened to this shiur several times and find it really well put together and insightful.
    Shana Tova!

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  3. Don't even need to read something redemptive about Yishma‘el -- he never did anything wrong in the first place. RShB"Y insists on it.

  4. Risa-

    Tosefta Sotah 6 is interesting, but I would hardly call R' Shimon bar Yochai's position an exoneration of Yishmael. The translation in your post omits both R' Shimon bar Yochai's reason for saying what he did (Avraham's righteousness rather than Yishmael's), and the strength of his criticism of Yishmael for being so greedy.

  5. Rav,
    How is Yishma‘el greedy for reacting incredulously to a situation that makes no sense without knowing God's plan? He *is* the bekhor, why would he expect not to get what he deserved?

  6. I just checked again and i don't see what you're referring to. When Yishma‘el tells everyone "don't be stupid"?

  7. Hi Steg,
    It's Yishmael's harsh language and mockery, combined with the fact that R' Shimon bar Yochai does not actually exonerate him. He says he cannot go with the normal explanations of מצחק because it is impossible that this would have been permitted in Avraham and Sarah's home. Hardly a vindication of Yishmael.

  8. I read your piece in the hard copy over Rosh Hashanah. It's very good, but I have one (minor?) problem with it.

    You wrote:
    "Just that morning, the teen {Yishmael] had been evicted for idolatry, murder and sexual immorality"

    I wish you had added something like "According to the midrash", instead of just pointing the reader to a footnote. Those charges against Yishmael are so far away from the peshat that I hope you'd want to make very clear that they're in the midrash, and clearly not in the chumash itself.

    There is an increasing tendency to cite a passuk and an aggadata as if they're from the same place and are equally important. Part of rabbinic teaching, I believe, is to make their differences clear and explicit.

    Thank you and gmar chatimah tovah.

  9. LI Reader-
    I hear your point, but I disagree. The same text that indicts him is the one that declares him Tzaddik (granted the possibility of a dispute among tannaim there). So it's internally consistent, and requires no qualifier.

  10. I think you missed my point. It is that the chumash and the midrash aren't the same; they're not on the same level, and they shouldn't be cited as if they are.

    You can quote the chumash as fact, but the midrash should be quoted exactly as that -- aggadata. Don't treat them as if they're the same or have the same degree of kedushah. When something is in a midrash, say it.

  11. LI Reader-
    Thanks for clarifying, but that's what I thought you meant. In some other contexts I would agree. But in this context I don't see it: The core logic of the article pits midrash of guilt vs. midrash of teshuvah, I note in the body of the article in three places that I am citing midrash, and I footnote all of the midrashim.