Avi, our three and a half-year-old son, went to work with his Abba the other day. Though he spent a good deal of the day in the company’s child care center, he and his dad traveled on the subway together (watching the “local” and “express” trains), had lunch together, and then came home together. And these “father and son” experiences have become more and more frequent in the last year – Abba giving Avi a bath, Abba taking Avi to minyan with him, and of course, the nightly singing of “Abba Shema” before Avi goes to sleep. These experiences are endearing to me because I watch the flowering of the special relationship between our son and his father.
It was this context, I believe, which made Parashat Vayera difficult for me to read this year. There are a number of father-son tensions in the parasha, but the one which struck me the hardest this time was in verse 11 of Chapter 21. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, has asked him – in strong terms – to “cast out” Hagar and Ishmael (Abraham’s concubine and son) “for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (21:10) The text continues: “The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his.” But, encouraged by God, Abraham listened to Sarah and soon cast out his concubine and his son. And that is the last that we hear of Abraham’s relationship with his son Ishmael until Abraham dies, at which time both Ishmael and Isaac bury their father. (Genesis 25:9).
Seeing what I see in the relationship between my husband and my son, I had great difficulty understanding how a father could cast off his own child – one with whom he had lived and presumably interacted for more than 13 years – and never see that child again. It pained me to imagine this scenario, even though I understood the broader themes of the parashah.
Apparently, Abraham’s casting off of his son also bothered some of our ancient rabbis, for I found a midrash which presumed that Abraham never completely abandoned his son. In the midrash (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 30) Abraham goes to see his son Ishmael in the wilderness of Paran three years after Ishmael has married a Moabite woman. Ishmael is not at home when Abraham arrives, but Abraham speaks to his wife and asks her for some bread and water, which she refuses to give him – even though it is midday in the middle of the wilderness. Abraham asks her to tell her husband that an old man from Canaan came to see him, and to tell him that “the household of this house is not in good repair.” When the wife transmits this message to Ishmael, he divorces her, and his mother finds him another wife.
Three years later, Abraham goes to see his son again, and again does not find him at home. Abraham asks this new wife for some bread and water, because he is weary, and she brings them to him. The midrash continues: “Then Abraham entreated the Holy One on his son’s behalf, and Ishmael’s house was filled with all manner of good things. When Ishmael came back, his wife told him what had happened. Then Ishmael realized that his father still loved him.”
The midrash touched me, not only because it provided a reconciliation of sorts between Abraham and his son, but because it seemed to me the more accurate portrayal of what must have happened between Abraham – father of our people and fighter for justice – and his son Ishmael. Yes, Ishmael was destined not to be the link to Abraham’s destiny, but he was still Abraham’s flesh and blood. The midrash portrays Abraham seeking to let Ishmael know that he is still interested in his son’s life, that he wants his life to be good and happy (with a kind-hearted wife), and that he wants to provide him with whatever material goods he can – given the destiny which God has outlined for him. This, to me, is a more natural description of what must have happened after the “casting off”, and more a model for us even in difficult, strained parent-child relations. My prayer is that none of us should ever be placed in the situation Abraham was placed in, but if we should have to live with strained familial relations, that we will behave with as much concern and love as Abraham did in the midrash.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.