On Judaism and Islam – Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael and Fatima – Covenant and Conversation

Sometimes the Torah spells out its message; at other times it gives us no more than clues. In this week’s sedrah, there are three.

The first occurs when Abraham’s servant is returning with Rebecca, who is to become Isaac’s wife. The Torah describes the scene when she first sees Isaac in the distance. He is coming, we are told, from “Be’er Lachai Ro’ee” to meditate in the field. What is this place, and why was Isaac there? Thus far we have situated the patriarchal family at Beersheba (to which Abraham returns after the binding of Isaac) and Hebron (where Sarah dies and is buried). What is this third location, and what is its significance?

Second is the extraordinary last chapter of Abraham’s life. For chapter after chapter, we read of the love and faithfulness Abraham and Sarah had for one another. Together they embarked on a long journey to an unknown destination. They stood out against the idolatry of their time. Twice, Sarah saved Abraham’s life by pretending to be his sister. They hoped and prayed for a child and endured the long years of childlessness until Isaac was born. Sarah’s life draws to a close. She dies. Abraham mourns and weeps for her, and buys a cave in which she is buried. We then expect to read that Abraham lived out the rest of his years alone.

Unexpectedly, however, once Isaac is married, Abraham marries a woman named Keturah and has six children by her. Who is this woman? What is this episode telling us? Is it a mere incidental detail? The Torah does not include mere incidental details. We have no idea, for example, what Abraham looked like. We do not even know the name of the servant he sent to find a wife for Isaac. Tradition tells us that it was Eliezer, but the Torah itself does not. If, then, Abraham’s second marriage was consequential, in what way was it so? How is it integral to the narrative?

The third occurs in the Torah’s description of Abraham’s death. He was buried, we are told, by Isaac and Ishmael. What is Ishmael doing here? Did we not read that he was sent away into the desert when Isaac was young? Have the two stepbrothers not lived in total isolation from one another? How did they make contact? Was there not tension between them? Yet the Torah places them together at the funeral with not a word of explanation.

The sages read these three details not as mysteries but as clues. The story they pieced together is enthralling.

First, the place from where Isaac was coming when Rebecca saw him – Be’er Lachai Ro’ee. Only one previous reference has been made to this place (Genesis 16:14). It is the spot where Hagar, pregnant and fleeing from Sarah, encounters an angel who tells her to return. He adds, “You are now with a child, and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael [God hears], for the Lord has heard your misery.” Be’er Lachai Ro’ee is the place associated with Ishmael. Why did Isaac go there? To be reconciled with his stepbrother after his mother’s death.

The second clue is Abraham’s remarriage. Who was Keturah? The sages said that she was Hagar. (It is not unusual for people in the Torah to have more than one name, i.e. Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, had seven.) She was called Keturah, said the sages “because her acts gave forth fragrance like incense, ketoret.”

Not only did Isaac feel guilty about the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. So did Abraham, according to this interpretation. We know that Abraham did not want to send Ishmael away. The text (Genesis 21:11) is explicit on this point. But Sarah was insistent, and God told Abraham to listen to her. Throughout Sarah’s lifetime, reconciliation with Hagar was impossible. After her lifetime, however, Abraham sought her out and brought her back. Hagar did not end her days as an outcast. She returned, in honor, as Abraham’s wife. That is why, at Abraham’s funeral (he died 38 years after Sarah), Isaac and Ishmael were both present. The divided family was reunited.

There is an extraordinary midrash (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, 30) that tells the story of how Ishmael was twice visited by Abraham. On both occasions, Ishmael was not at home. On the first, his wife, not knowing Abraham’s identity, refused the stranger bread and water. Ishmael divorced her and married a woman named Fatimah. This time when Abraham visited, again not disclosing his identity, the woman gave him food and drink. The midrash then says, “Abraham stood and prayed before the Holy One, blessed be He, and Ishmael’s house became filled with all good things. When Ishmael returned, his wife told him about it, and Ishmael knew that his father still loved him.”

There is a story here of immense consequence for our time. Jews and Muslims both trace their descent from Abraham: Jews though Isaac, Muslims through Ishmael. Fatimah is an important figure in Islam. She is the daughter of the prophet.

Beneath the surface of the narrative in Parshat Chayei Sarah, the sages read the clues and pieced together a moving story of reconciliation between Abraham and Isaac on the one hand, Hagar and Ishmael on the other. Yes, there was conflict and separation; but that was the beginning, not the end. Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both his sons, and was laid to rest by both. There is hope for the future in this story of the past.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, and most recently provided the English translation and commentary for The Koren Sacks Siddur, the first English-translated Orthodox siddur in a generation.

Adapted from Covenant & Conversation, a collection of Rabbi Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.

Extracted from: http://www.ou.org/torah/article/on_judaism_and_islam

Post By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (2 Posts)

  • Zmira Cohen

    Publish this more widely.Every time an act of terror occurs it seems people tend to become more extreme ( negative ) in their reactions to the possibility of reconciliation.Besides the actual act of terror,I think this is the real insidious force underlying terror.

    • Agreed. While we need to realize that Yitzchak and Yishmael were brothers, both of whom practiced Hachnasas Orchim, the reality is that some Muslims have sunk to the level of monsters who would kill an innocent family with its children, like the incident in Itamar (http://bit.ly/f3y6k8).

  • Ioni Omni Speaks

    For years, I have thought that Isaac and Ishmael burying their father together is a significant aspect of insight into future Jewish/Islamic relations. As much as I enjoyed reading the article by Rabbi J. Sacks, and the reference to writing by the sage about Abraham’s second wife being Hagar, I still like to rely ONLY on the Word for my research. All of the things said about returning Hagar to a place of honor, etc., etc. seem very logical to me. Midrash fleshes out the story very nicely.
    As I was pondering the ‘Islamic thing’ for my own writing, it occured to me that Arabs went wrong when man made Muslimism entered the picture, and G-d’s chosen people went wrong by allowing corrupt rabbis and cohens to ‘enter in’. Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Ishmael, and their family all made mistakes because they were human. G-d expects us to make mistakes, but He doesn’t want us to ‘speak’ in His place. Thats why Torah was given. He makes the rules, and we obey them. It is really rather simple. Abraham taught us that G-d takes care of all of us….Jew and non-Jew alike….but He chose Jews to be the vehicle for learning about Him, and the vehicle can’t be the driver.
    Ioni Omni