This article first appeared on genaleph.org
As we have already repeatedly demonstrated, the Sugya of Ben Sorer U’Moreh is replete with invaluable Chinuch insights. Let us once again turn to the phrase that we examined in last week’s article:
וְאָֽמְר֞וּ אֶל־זִקְנֵ֣י עִיר֗וֹ בְּנֵ֤נוּ זֶה֙ סוֹרֵ֣ר וּמֹרֶ֔ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ שֹׁמֵ֖עַ בְּקֹלֵ֑נוּ זוֹלֵ֖ל וְסֹבֵֽא
And they shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; [he is] a glutton and a guzzler.”
In last week’s article we explained the words, בְּנֵ֤נוּ זֶה֙, this son of ours, to mean that parents must be able to identify their son. To be considered a Ben Sorer U’Moreh they must give him a Chinuch that is appropriate for him and cannot blind themselves to this child’s specific needs. In this article we will explore the words בְּנֵ֤נוּ זֶה֙ not from the perspective of the parents but from the perspective of the son.
One of the most moving and compelling articles I have ever read is entitled, “Yishmael The Righteous” by Rav Yochanon Zweig shlit”a. Rav Zweig is world renowned for his brilliant insight but in my humble opinion this article stands head and shoulders above the rest (and I can assure you dear reader that “the rest” is brilliant in its own right). It is at once intellectually stimulating and emotionally soul stirring. Every year I return to this idea on Parshas Chayei Sarah, and I feel privileged to share it with you.
At the end of Parshas Chayei Sarah the Torah tells us that both Yitzchak and Yishmael buried Avraham Avinu. Highlighting the order of Yitzchak prior to Yishmael (despite Yishmael being the older son) Rashi comments that this proves that Yismael did Teshuva. Rav Zweig asks, given that Yishamel transgressed all three of the cardinal sins (idolatry, murder and adultery), how is this seemingly small gesture of allowing Yitzchak to precede him an indication of Yishmael’s Teshuva?
Rav Zweig explains that to understand Yishmael, we must first understand his mother Hagar. The Torah describes Hagar as an “Egyptian maidservant” and Rashi tells us that she was in fact the daughter of Pharaoh. In response to the miracles that were performed for Avraham Avinu in Mitzrayim, Pharaoh declared that it would be better for his daughter to be a maidservant in the house of Avraham than to be a mistress in a different home. The meaning of this is not that Pharaoh wished for his daughter to be raised in a home of Kedusha (there is no indication that Pharaoh did Teshuva or that Egypt refrained from the immorality for which they had become famous) but rather that Pharaoh sought to create a powerful alliance between himself and Avraham Avinu. Though Pharaoh was very powerful, Avraham had defeated the four kings and had a following of tens of thousands of people. In other words, Avraham Avinu was a powerful force to be reckoned with and by moving Hagar into the house of Avraham, Hagar was in a position where she could assume some of that power for herself.
Considering this understanding, the story of Hagar’s marriage to Avraham Avinu and the subsequent Machlokes between Hagar and Sarah Imeinu takes on new dimensions. Hagar’s derisive attitude towards Sarah Imeinu was a function of the fact that Hagar, having borne Yishmael, now saw herself as the true wife of Avraham Avinu. It was her son that would carry on the dynasty. Having gained significant power in the house of Avraham, Hagar had fulfilled Pharaoh’s mission. But when Sarah had Hagar and Yishmal expelled from the house of Avraham, all the power she had gained was gone in an instant. This explains a troubling aspect of the story between Hagar and Yishmael. Normally a mother would cradle her dying son in her arms. She would stay with him until his very last breath, whispering words of strength and courage in his ears. Hagar leaves Yishmael to die alone. What type of mother could leave her child to die alone?!? Rav Zweig explains that Hagar saw Yishmael as a pawn in her plan to gain power in the house of Avraham. He was not her child but a tool that she used to fulfill her aspirations. Having been expelled from the house of Avraham her ambitions had been dashed and Yishmael was no longer of use to her.
And now for the most powerful part of this beautiful Dvar Torah. What happens to child who grows up knowing that his mother doesn’t truly love him? What becomes of a child who knows that his value is as a pawn in a larger political game? Such a child grows up with no notion of his own value. No self-esteem. Indeed such a child is capable of committing the worst possible Aveiros. We do not learn to love ourselves. Our parents and community love us into being. There is an old African proverb, “A child that is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” Yishmael’s sins were understandable. As if in a game of charades, he was acting out his feelings because he did not have the language to express what he was experiencing. The Torah refers to the sins of Yishmael as “scoffing.” He was not a bad child. He was simply trying to get some attention. Some love. He wanted, no he needed to feel the warmth of the village. Yishmael was not evil, he was desperate. If there ever was a sympathetic figure in Tanach, it is certainly Yishmael.
With this narrative in mind let us now examine the relationship between Yishmael and Yitzchak. For thirteen years Yishmael was the golden child. Chazal tell us that he emulated the ways of his father Avraham and merely three days after his circumcision he was engaged in the Mitzvah of Hachanas Orchim. Though he knew that he was only a political pawn in his mother’s game, he was a successful pawn. He was the heir apparent to the throne. One imagines that even though Yishmael on some level knew that his mother’s love was conditional, nevertheless he could, with some relative degree of ease, engage in cognitive dissonance and enjoy the “love” she showed him. All of that changed when Yitzchak was born. Gone was his position as Avraham’s true heir. All pretenses of love that his mother showed him disappeared. A teenager who has lost everything, Yishmael does the only thing he can think of: he attempts to murder Yitzchak. While there is no doubt that this is a terrible sin, given the reality that Yishmael was experiencing we can have some degree of sympathy for him. With Yitzchak out of the way he could regain some sense of self. He could salvage his dignity. As long as Yitzchak was alive Yishmael had to face the reality that his entire existence was worthless. Our heart bleeds for a child who is living with such pain.
Let us fast forward many many years to the burial of Avraham Avinu. Yishmael and Yitzchak will bury their father together. But who will go first? Yishmael is the older son and Yitzchak is the true scion of Avraham Avinu. It is easy for us to imagine this scene becoming a veritable war zone as old feelings of pain and resentment surface within Yishmael. Once again, his very existence is being challenged. But no. Shockingly, Yishmael steps aside and lets Yitzchak go first. Clearly something has shifted inside of Yishmael. It is now readily apparent how Rashi saw that Yishmael had done Teshuva. As a child, Yishmael would have been constitutionally incapable of allowing Yitzchak to go first. But as an adult Yishmael has come to a deeper understanding of himself. He now understands that he was not a bad child, but a hurt child. He did not commit those terrible Aveiros because he was innately evil but because he was drowning and was desperately trying to get the attention he needed in order to survive. In allowing Yitzchak to go first we see that Yishmael came to terms with his role in the family. He was a person of value even if he was not the heir to Avraham Avinu. Only a person with a strong sense of self could have allowed Yitzchak to go first. Far from being a mere gesture, this was the litmus test that proved that Yishmael had done a sincere Teshuva.
But how did Yishmael, a child who experienced such immense levels of pain and loneliness and rage and desperation and despair, come to such a keen awareness of himself? Rav Zweig urges us to carefully examine the story of how Yishmael was saved. In response to Yishmael’s Teffilos, an angel appears to Hagar and informed her that he would be saved. “What concerns you Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the youth where he is. Get up, lift up the youth, and hold him with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” But would it not be easier to bring the water to Yishmael? Why is Hagar instructed to lift up Yishmael and to hold his hand? Rav Zweig explains that if the goal was merely to keep Yishmael alive she could have brought the water to him. But what was the value in keeping Yishmael alive? He had nothing to live for! No. If Yishmael is going to have a successful life then he needs to be loved into being by his mother. Hagar is receiving a Chinuch lesson from the angel. Lift up your son! Hold his hand! This child cannot survive with the knowledge that he is cast aside, left on the road to die alone, when he no longer serves your purpose. But a mother who lifts her child up, who holds his hand and takes care of his needs when he cannot take care of himself, is communicating to her child that he is unconditionally loved. That he has intrinsic worth and not merely functional value. If Yishmael was able to step aside and let Yitzchak go first it is because Hagar became a mother. And once Yishmael felt his mother’s love, he had the courage to become a curious observer of self and get to the root of his issues.
As parents we love our children for no rational reason. It is not because they will take care of us when we are old nor because they will be our legacy. We do not love our children so that we may get Nachas from them nor because they will be observant Jews. Our love stems from a place where reason cannot reach. And children can be challenging at times. They may stray from the path that we have raised them to take. They may not be the legacy we were hoping they would become. These are deeply painful experiences for us as parents. But in these times we must declare בְּנֵ֤נוּ זֶה֙! This is our child! No matter what choices this child makes, he is ours and our love is unconditional. If the parents cannot declare to the Beis Din “בְּנֵ֤נוּ זֶה֙”, this is our child, then the child cannot be considered a Ben Sorer U’Moreh. He is not an evil child; he simply has not felt that he truly belongs to these parents. In his state of pain, he acts out the feelings that he does not have the language to express. He is not a glutton nor a thief. He is a child desperate for attention and love. So we take heed of the angel’s instructions to Hagar. We lift our children up. We let them know that our love for them is unconditional. We hold their hand. We assure them that they are not alone on this journey. We will accompany them wherever they go. We may not agree with their choices, but we will never let go of their hand. Such a child will surely become a “great nation.” When a child knows that they are ok, that they are surrounded by people who love them not because of what they do (or do not do) but because of who they are, then they will surely have the strength to access and actualize the greatness inside of themselves.
 Avraham Avinu understood the root of Yishmael’s issues and therefore argued that expelling him from his home would only further the problem. This child needed to be brought closer not pushed further away. Only because Yishmael, in his pain, represented a threat to Yitzchak was Avraham Avinu instructed to remove him from the home. But Chazal teach us that Avraham Avinu continued to visit Yishmael even after he was expelled. Avraham understood that if Yishmael was to have a fighting chance in life he would need to know that his father loved him.