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(‘ולישמאעל שמעתי בך הנה ברכתי אותו… נשיאים יולד” (בראשית י”ז:כ”
At the end of this week’s parsha, G-d makes a new ברית with Avraham Avinu. In it, Hashem changes אברם and שרי’s names to אברהם and שרה and charges the newly-renamed Avraham Avinu to give a ברית מילה to all of the males of his household. At the end of this dialogue, אברהם and שרה are told they will have a son in less than a year.
Avraham’s first reaction to this news is “ויפל אברהם על פניו ויצחק”- Avraham fell on his face and laughed [out of joy]. After he calms down a little bit, Avraham starts to worry about his son ישמאעל. He realizes that if G-d is going to ratify his covenant through his soon-to-be-born son, this means that ישמאעל isn’t worthy to succeed אברהם as the head of the Chosen People. He therefore asks Hashem “לו ישמאעל יחיה לפניך”. A few of the commentators try to interpret this question:
Ramban interprets this request very literally- Avraham, after hearing that יצחק would be his main son and inheritor, was afraid that ישמאעל would die shortly afterward, for the reason that Avraham agreed to have a child with Hagar was to have an offspring. By saying לו ישמאעל יחיה לפניך, Avraham is literally begging Hashem for ישמאעל’s life.
R’ Shimson Rafael Hirsch comments that at this point of time, Avraham realized that Yishmael was not worthy to be his successor as the אב המון גוים. Nevertheless, being a good father, he wanted the best future for Yishmael, and begged Hashem for a holy and successful life.
Hashem responds by reminding Avraham that Yitzchak will be his main son. Then He adds that “ולישמאעל שמעתי בך”- Regarding Yishmael, I have listened to you. Hashem promises Avraham that Yishmael will be fruitful and rich and will be the father of a great nation. He concludes by saying “שנים עשר נשיאים יוליד לו”- Twelve princes will be born to him. On the surface this seems to be a nice, if oddly specific, consolation prize for Yishmael. Looking ahead to the end of פרשת חיי שרה, we see that ישמאעל did indeed have 12 sons. However, רש”י and רבינו בחיי bring a very relevant, and slightly scary, interpretation on this ברכה:
Rashi teaches that the word נשיאים can also mean “clouds.” By blessing Yishmael’s descendants to be like clouds, G-d is revealing that just a cloud, בני ישמאעל will initially enjoy a period of being on top, but in the end, like the clouds, they will fall and fade away.
Rabeinu Bachaya in the name of Rabeinu Chananel, takes this a step further by bringing in events that were, at that time, very current. With the rise of Islam in the Seventh Century, בני ישמאל became a great nation. The Muslim people waited patiently until this פסוק was fulfilled and they dominated most of the world through the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 13th Century. Even to this day, בני ישמאעל rule most of the Middle East and have a strong influence in Europe and Africa. We, בני יצחק, are promised to ultimately end up on top, but our destiny is delayed by our sins. Nevertheless there will come a day when the rest of the ברית will be fulfilled and we will have our victory.
Jumping forward to the year 5773/2012, we live in a very scary reality. Though the Jewish People, the בני יצחק, have begun to fulfill the destiny of our forefather אברהם of “לך לך מארצך וממלתדך… אל הארץ אשר ארעך,” we are still attacked daily by rockets and missiles being fired in from our cousins, בני ישמאעל, in Gaza and in Lebanon. We are faced with the threat of nuclear annihilation by our cousins further north in Iran. The coming months will be a time of choice as we choose new leaders both in the American and Israeli elections. We might think that choosing a certain candidate will save the Jewish state from our Palestinian/Muslim neighbors. This could not be further from the truth! It is no coincidence that this ברית is contained in the same פרשה as Avraham’s עליה לארץ. Our ultimate victory over בני ישמאעל will not be a direct result of help from the president of the United States, whether it will be Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. It will not even be a direct result of the leadership of the new Prime Minister of Israel, whether it be Benjamin Netanyanhu, or a competent challenger, should one step up before January. Our victory over בני ישמאעל will only come through us following the example of אברהם אבינו, back before he received a covenant from G-d, back before he knew he would be the father of a great nation- אברם left חרן simply because G-d told him to To truly win our war against the Muslim people, we must also bring about the קיבוץ גליות, and through this תשובה, we will עי”ה be victorious.