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PARASHAT CHAYEI SARAH 5758
Yitzchak was returning from the well of Lachai Ro'i; he had been living in the Negev area. Yitzchak went to pray in the field towards evening.... (Bereishit 24:62-63)
Yitzchak is first introduced to his wife-to-be, Rivkah, while praying out in the open fields. The Talmud (Berachot 26b) explains that Yitzchak was accustomed to praying an afternoon prayer every day and it is to this prayer that the verse is referring (see Parasha-Page, Parashat Vayera 5758).
The well of Lachai Ro'i was where Avraham's maid-servant, Hagar, found respite after fleeing Avraham's home due to the oppression of his wife Sarah (Bereishit 16:14). It was there that an angel informed Hagar that she would bear a son to Avraham and should name him Yishmael. Why does the Torah find it necessary to preface Yitzchak's prayer with the statement that he was "returning from the well of Lachai Ro'i?" Rashi (ad loc.) offers one explanation, but there are many aspects to the Torah. The following is based on the work "Mima'amakim" on Bereishit compiled by Rav Alexander Mandelbaum, Jerusalem 1997, pps. 103-119, with some minor additions of my own.
Bil'am said: Of all the 70 nations that Hashem created, He did not associate His Holy Name (E-l) with any other than Yisra-el. Since Hashem equated the name of Yishma-el to the name of Yisrael in this respect, woe to the person who lives when Yishmael rises to power -- as the verse says (Bamidbar 24:23), "Woe to he who lives, because Hashem has placed his name E-l (in Yishmael)." (Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer, end of ch. 30)
What is the significance of Hashem's "associating His Name" with the nation of Yishmael? In order to answer this question, let us first examine the character of Avraham's son Yishmael, the patron of the nation of Yishmael.
A heavenly angel informed Hagar that she should give the name "Yishmael" to the son she would bear to Avraham, since "Hashem has *heard* ('Shama') your plight." That is, Hagar prayed to Hashem to save her from her oppression, and Hashem answered her prayers. It was through the power of prayer that she was blessed with a son, and it was this power that she imbued in her son. The literal meaning of Yishmael's name is "Hashem will hear [his prayers]." Indeed, when Yishmael was near death and prayed to Hashem for salvation Hashem "heard the voice of the lad" and saved his life in a miraculous fashion (Bereishit 21:17). Until today, his descendants are outstanding in their devotion to a rigorous prayer schedule of five daily prayers.
Yishmael was an archer by profession (Bereishit 21:20). When Yakov says that he conquered the city of Shechem "with my sword and my bow," the Targum explains that he conquered it with his "prayer and his supplication." The bow and arrow allegorically refers to prayer, which is the tool that can truly protect a person from all harm. Yishmael was an archer both in the true sense of the word and in the allegorical sense.
Aside from being a form of communion with Hashem, prayer is indicative of an even more desirable quality. Praying to Hashem demonstrates that a person puts his trust and faith in Hashem. As Rabbeinu Yonah (Berachos 4b) puts it, "One who does not trust in Hashem will not request anything of Him." The very fact that a person addresses his prayers to Hashem is a sign of his belief that Hashem can, and will, answer his prayers. This is what the Midrash mean by asserting that Hashem "associates His Name with Yishmael." Just as the Jewish People, with their strong faith in Hashem, make His Name known to the world, so too the nation of Yishmael feels the desire to introduce the world to the faith of the One G-d.
But why should that be a reason for those who live under the hand of Yishmael to suffer more those who live under any of the other nations? Because theirs is a faith gone awry. Yishmael is not ready to subjugate his will to that of a Higher Authority. He is a "Pereh Adam" (Bereishit 16:12), a man who knows no bounds; a person who wants to be free from all constraints. "His hand will be in [the pockets of] all" (ibid., according to Rashi).
According to "Nifl'at mi'Toratecha," by Rav Mordechai Aran, Jerusalem 1997, there are three times in the Torah that the letters of the name Yishmael appear in their proper order but are grouped into different words: Devarim 21:19; 17:12; and 18:19. It is interesting to note that in these three instances, respectively, the Torah is referring to a person who refuses to obey the bidding of his parents, of the court, and of a prophet.
Yishmael believes in Hashem, but is not ready to subjugate his will to that of Hashem. What does he do? He does what he pleases, and claims that this is G-d's will! This is what the Midrash means by pitying those who live under Yishmael because Hashem's name is associated with Yishmael. Yishmael's faith in G-d ("Hashem's name is associated with Yishmael") takes the form of making his every corrupt trait into a holy mission!
While other nations have caused us suffering, they did so within limits. Since their aim was to satisfy their physical desires, they had no interest in, for instance, giving up their lives in order to torment us. Yishmael is different. Since he is "fighting a holy war," his oppression is entirely without limits. His "faith" brings him to kill and plunder, even at the expense of his own life, those whom he does not accept. Even his prayer is aimed at achieving a particular objective. "Hashem has heard *your oppression*" is the theme line of Yishmael. When oppressed, Yishmael calls out to Hashem for help -- his is not a prayer for the sake of prayer. Prayer is another means of attaining his goals.
How are we to escape Yishmael's oppression? "Yitzchak was returning from the well of Lachai Ro'i... and he went to pray in the field towards evening." Yitzchak also prayed to Hashem when under duress, as symbolized by the well of Lachai Ro'i where Yishmael was attributed his name. But he did more than that. He went from there to pray in the field the Minchah, afternoon, prayer. The afternoon prayer is different from the morning and evening prayers in that it is not a prayer with an objective. In the morning a person prays that he will succeed throughout the day. In the evening he prays for Hashem's protection through the night. But in the afternoon prayer we simply acknowledge that everything that has transpired during the day is the will of Hashem. It is our "Minchah," our gift so to speak, to Hashem. This is a prayer that Yishmael cannot relate to -- a prayer meant to subject the will of the person praying to the will of his Creator.
This is where Yitzchak surpassed Yishmael, and this is our secret to freeing ourselves from the bondage of Yishmael. We must arouse our love of Hashem through prayer, accepting through prayer to subordinate ourselves to the will of Hashem. "Subject your will to Hashem's will, that he may subject the will of others to your will" (Avot 2:4). Such a level of prayer transcends the realm of Yishmael and puts us out of his grasp.
"[This week's Parasha ends with the statement that] 'Yishmael's lot *fell* among that of his brethren,' which is followed by, "These are the offspring of Yitzchak." This is to show that when Yishmael will 'fall' (i.e., lose power) in the end of days, that is when Mashiach, who is from the descendants of Yitzchak, will arrive" (Ba'al ha'Turim, end of Chayei Sarah). May Hashem grant that the day of the final redemption soon arrive.
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