Sermonette: From Textual Oddity to Principle of Divine Judgement

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 6 September 2013

To the early rabbis, who believed that Torah was the dictated word of God, no feature of Torah was redundant, every aspect must have been given to teach something – if only we can work out what it is.

This morning, we are going to focus on one small phrase in this morning’s portion and how it came to be understood in rabbinic literature.  What it was understood to teach us.

A quick recap of this morning’s portion.
Sarah and Abraham finally have a son, Isaac.  Seeing him interact with Ishmael, the son of Hagar, Sarah tells Abraham to send them both away.  Abraham is unsure, but God backs Sarah’s plan, so he packs them off into the desert with meagre supplies.  As the water runs out, Hagar despairs, but God intervenes and saves them both.
An angel speaks to Hagar saying
כי שמע אלהים אל קול הנער באשר הוא שם

The end of this verse is an odd phrase – where he is.  It is both redundant, the verse could just say GOD HAS HEARD THE VOICE OF THE BOY.  And it is oddly phrased, ba’asher hu sham
As such, it was gold dust to the rabbis – it demands explanation.

Some understood it as specifying location, and as such it is a rebuke to Hagar.  Having left her son and gone off to cry away from him, it was to him, over there, that God responded.
One interpretation reads it as: God has already responded to the voice of the boy where he is – i.e. if you just stopped crying and looked up to where your son is, you will see that God has already made a well over there.

Another interpretation understands it not as a reference to Ishmael’s location but his nature.
From the early midrash Bereshit Rabbah, we learn that Rabbi Simon explains that the angels wanted God to allow Ishmael to die, foreseeing that “in the future he will kill Your children with thirst”
God’s reply: But what is his nature at this moment, right now? Righteous or wicked?
The answer is righteous, and thus, God saves him, saying: I do not judge man except as he is at this moment.

This is a fascinating text.  It seems to be a very different reading of Ishmael’s character to that found in some other places in rabbinic literature where he is understood as being a bad guy – according to those midrashim, Sarah only wants Ishmael banished because she sees him making sport – understood as either trying to kill Isaac, or the three ‘cardinal’ sins – idolatry, murder and sexual malpractices.

Here, Ishmael is seen as an innocent.  It is only when he is older, and in fact as understood by Rashi, his descendants, that mistreatment of Israel takes place.

What is important is the underlying ideal that this midrash expresses, the principle that the rabbis pull from this textual oddity.  Even if the heavenly host are right that Ishmael will go on to injure Israel – even so, God does not judge him on the basis of what he will do, what he might become but on the basis of who he is right there and then, as he calls out to God in the wilderness.

What we can be is not determined, it can always be changed.

It is an idea also noted in a midrash on the story of the Exodus from Egypt, where the rabbis imagine God saying: I foresee how much pain Israel will cause me in the future, that they will rebel, that they will build a golden calf, but I can only judge them how they are at this moment.  Now they are righteous and I will redeem them.

As stated in the Talmud, this becomes a maxim of divine judgement in the name of Rabbi Yitchak: Man is judged only according to his actions up to that time.  Not according to possible future actions, nor the actions of his descendants, but who he is then and there.  The future is not set.

In fact, this midrash is even more powerful if it is read in conjunction with the midrashim that see Ishmael as a negative character – then it means something even more profound – whoever he has been, whoever he might go on to be, he is only to be judged here and now.

And so too, for us, on this Yom HaDin, at this time of judgement and self-judgement.  Nothing is pre-determined, each of us has the ability to change, the ability to shape our own destinies.
And though the chances are high that we will fail to meet the lofty goals we might set for ourselves at this time of year, and even if we have not met the lofty expectations of last year, we can judge ourselves only as we are right now – crying out before God in the wilderness.

Our hope is that God may hear our voice ‘where we are’
Just as God heard the voice of Ishmael – ba’asher hu sham.