Yishmael's Untimely Demise
Parashat Chayei Sarah opens with the death of the matriarch Sarah. After a life of effort and achievement, setback and success, Sarah passes on, leaving behind Avraham her loyal husband and Yitzchak her beloved and only son. Immediately, Avraham makes preparations for her burial, enlisting the support of the Chittites and then securing a sepulcher at the cave of Machpela. With Sarah gone, and the cry of his own mortality now more insistent, Avraham's thoughts turn to the future, to the fate of Yitzchak their progeny, to God's dual promise of offspring and land. Avraham calls upon his most loyal servant Eliezer and charges him with a mission: to return to the land of Avraham's birth, there to secure a wife for Yitzchak his son from among the members of his extended family.
The servant complies, leading his laden camel train to Charan. Resting at the well on its outskirts, he lifts up his hands in supplication to God. Asking for Divine assistance in securing a bride for his master's son, Eliezer's prayers are answered forthwith. A young maiden approaches, her pitcher upon her shoulder, and graciously offers him a drink. Unsolicited, she then proceeds to water his camels. Eliezer quickly realizes that his prayers have been answered, though he has scarcely arrived.
Eliezer returns with the damsel Rivka to her home and convinces her hesitant family to let her accompany him to Canaan. They trek westward, eventually arriving at the Negev, where Avraham's household resides. Yitzchak sees them approaching from the distance and Rivka, in a sign of deference, alights from upon her camel. Eliezer excitedly recounts the details of his adventure, and the section concludes with the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivka: "Yitzchak brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother. He took Rivka as his wife and he loved her, and Yitzchak was comforted over the death of his mother" (24:67).
In broad terms, the Parasha addresses not so much Sarah's death, as much as the continuation of her legacy. Though it opens with her demise and burial, the immediate shift to the matter of finding a wife for Yitzchak implies that neither he nor his father Avraham are able to completely contend with Sarah's passing until they are certain that her teachings and her example will live on. Only once Rivka has taken her place and shown herself more than capable of perpetuating Sarah's traditions is the aged patriarch pacified and prepared to contemplate his own passing.
Though the text goes on to record that Avraham takes another wife in his old age and begets more children (25:1-6), the tone of the passage is passive, subdued and full of finality. There will be no more adventures of faith for the patriarch, no more challenges of the spirit and no more triumphs. Bereft of Sarah, he remains existentially alone until the end:
These are the length of Avraham's years that he lived, one hundred and seventy five. Avraham died in ripe old age and content, and he was gathered to his ancestors. Yitzchak and Yishma'el his sons buried him in the Cave of Machpela, located in the field of Efron son of Tzochar the Chittite, next to Mamre. It was the very field that Avraham had purchased from the Chittites; there he and Sarah his wife were buried. After Avraham's death, God blessed Yitzchak his son, and Yitzchak dwelt at the well of Lachai Roei (25:7-11).
THE CHRONOLOGY OF AVRAHAM'S DEATH
Chronologically speaking, of course, Avraham remains alive through at least the opening events of next week's Parashat Toldot, that describe the birth of Yitzchak and Rivka's twins. This can easily be calculated from the lifespans of the protagonists. Thus, we know that Avraham was one hundred years old at the birth of Yitzchak (21:5). From next week's reading we know that Yitzchak was forty years old at the time of his marriage (25:20), while Avraham was one hundred and forty (100 + 40 = 140). We further know that Yitzchak was sixty years old at the birth of his twins, Ya'acov and Esav (25:26), thus making Avraham one hundred and sixty at that point (100 + 60 = 160). Therefore, at the time of Yitzchak's marriage described in our Parasha, Avraham is one hundred and forty years old, and a full thirty-five years of his lifespan remain (175 – 140 = 35). Fifteen years of his life remain after he is graced with the birth of his grandchildren (175 – 160 = 15).
Nevertheless, though the record of his death and burial preserved in our Parasha is therefore premature and proleptic, thematically, it is not at all out of place. With Yitzchak's marriage to Rivka now consummated and Sarah already gone, Avraham effectively surrenders the patriarchal role to his son, and entrusts him with the precious task of advancing the process of nation building. Henceforth it will be Yitzchak and Rivka who will experience the trials and triumphs of that noble calling, while Avraham will look on from the periphery. From this point onwards, the Torah's attention will be trained upon Yitzchak, Rivka and their children, shrouding Avraham's final years in obscurity and silence.
THE DEATH OF YISHMA'EL
Much more unusual, however, is the other summation recorded in our Parasha, a passage that effectively drives a wedge between Yitzchak's marriage to Rivka and the saga of their children that is recounted at length in next week's reading. I refer, of course, to the record of Yishma'el's death preserved at the very end of Parashat Chayei Sarah:
These are the descendants of Yishma'el son of Avraham, who was born to him from Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah's handmaid. These are the names of Yishma'el's sons according to their birth, his firstborn was Nevayot, then Kedar, Adbiel and Mivsam. Also Mishma, Duma and Masa. Chaddad and Tema, Yeture, Nafish, and Kedmah. These are the children of Yishma'el and these are their names, in their villages and fortresses, twelve princes of their peoples. These are the length of Yishma'el's years, one hundred and thirty seven years, and he peacefully died and was gathered to his ancestors. [His descendants] dwelt from Chavila all the way to Shur that is next to Egypt approaching Ashur, against all his brethren they settled. (25:12-18)
Here, the chronological difficulties are somewhat more daunting. According to 16:16, Avraham was eighty-six old at the birth of Yishma'el, thus making the latter fourteen years older than his half-brother. At the opening of next week's Parasha, namely the marriage of Yitzchak to Rivka, Yishma'el is therefore fifty-four (40 + 14 = 54), while at the birth of Ya'acov and Esav, he is seventy-four (60 + 14 = 74). In other words, he is scarcely middle aged at the point in our Parasha when his death is announced! What is more, unlike Avraham who is only a memory in next week's Parasha (see 26:1, 15, 18, 24, etc.), Yishma'el is still very much alive, for at the conclusion of next week's reading, he reappears as Esav's unlikely father-in-law:
Esav saw that the women of Canaan were evil in his father's sight. ESAV WENT TO YISHMA'EL and he took Machelat the daughter of Yishma'el (Avraham's son), the sister of Nevayot, as wife besides his other wives (28:9).
The pertinent question, then, is not why the Torah records Yishma'el's death prematurely. After all, one could argue that his role in the Bereishit narratives is completed with the marriage of his half-brother and the birth of their children, for henceforth the Torah will concentrate on their story. Why however, did the text choose to make mention of Yishma'el's death at exactly this point, precisely in the middle of the description of that marriage?
THE APPROACH OF THE MIDRASH
The majority of the early commentaries do not appear overly troubled by the matter, but early on, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 62:5) already noted the difficulty:
"These are the descendants of Yishma'el son of Avraham…" – Rabbi Chama bar Ukba and the Rabbis pondered: 'why did the text decide to mention that wicked one's descendants here'? Rabbi Levi happened to be passing by, so they said: 'here comes a master of the traditions. Let us ask him.' Said Rabbi Levi in the name of Rabbi Chama: 'in order to indicate the age of your ancestor at the time that he received the blessing.' "These are the length of Yishma'el's years…" – 'why did the text decide to mention that wicked one's years here?' 'Because he came from the depths of the wilderness to do kindness to his father.'
The Midrash addresses two discrete elements, Yishma'el's descendants as well as his lifespan, and treats each one of them as an independent issue. Concerning the first point, Rabbi Levi suggests that the mention of Yishma'el's descendants provides us with the key for calculating the age of Ya'acov ("your ancestor") at the time that he receives the patriarchal blessing in next week's Parasha. The assumptions that underlie this calculation are twofold. Firstly, Rabbi Levi assumes that Esav's marriage to Machelat, mentioned above, occurs at the time of Yishma'el's death. This is based upon the fact that Nevayot the firstborn and her eldest brother is mentioned prominently in the matter, indicating that for all practical purposes it is he rather than his father who gives Machelat in marriage to Esav. This implies that Yishma'el must have then died. Secondly, Rabbi Levi assumes (based upon the larger context) that Esav's marriage to Machelat takes place in the immediate aftermath of Ya'acov receiving the blessing.
Putting these two points together, the age of Ya'acov at that moment can therefore be calculated. If Yishma'el dies at that time at the age of 137, then Ya'acov must be 63. Since Yishma'el was 14 years older than Yitzchak, and Yitzchak was 60 when Ya'acov was born, then Ya'acov must have been 63 years old at the time that Yishma'el died (137 – 60 – 14 = 63). In any case, it is clear that according to Rabbi Levi, the mention of Yishma'el at this point in the narrative has no intrinsic value and is only significant insofar as what it can tell us concerning our ancestor Ya'acov, the true focus of the unfolding account.
In a similar vein, Yishma'el's lifespan is only mentioned as an afterthought to the topic of the immediate context, namely the death of Avraham. The text makes it clear that "Avraham died in ripe old age and content, and he was gathered to his ancestors. Yitzchak AND YISHMA'EL his sons buried him in the Cave of Machpela…" (25:9). Yishma'el, the nomadic desert dweller, had come from far to pay his last respects to his father and the Torah "rewards" his kindness by recording the length of his years, thus granting him the immortality of memory that its words confer. Again, according to this Midrash, the mention of Yishma'el's lifespan is a secondary concession to the more important issue mentioned in the context: the death of Avraham.
THE INTERPRETATION OF THE RASHBAM
The Rashbam (12th century, France) offers his interpretation in a similar vein, also highlighting the centrality of Avraham:
The Sages have explained why the lifespan of Yishma'el is recorded. According to the straightforward explanation, it is for the sake of Avraham's honor. After all, Yishma'el's birth was mentioned as a function of his father's years: "Avraham was eighty-six years old at the time that Hagar gave birth to Yishma'el" (16:16). He was again mentioned as a function of his father's fulfillment of circumcision: "Avraham was ninety-nine years old at the time that he was circumcised. Yishma'el his son was thirteen years old at the time…"(17:24-25). Therefore the text now records all the years of his life (commentary to 25:17).
In other words, Rashbam indicates that the significant events in AVRAHAM'S life included the birth of his first son, the rite of circumcision, and of course his own demise. Yishma'el is mentioned in all of these contexts because they complete the story of Avraham's experiences. Like the Midrash above, Rashbam sees no other reason why the Torah should have recorded these otherwise irrelevant details.
While both the Midrash as well as the Rashbam attempt to explain the matter, neither adequately addresses the immediate context of Yitzchak and Rivka's marriage that is divided up by the "Yishma'el insertion." While the mention of Avraham's death seems fair enough for the reasons that we outlined above, Yishma'el's biography could have been easily recorded elsewhere, particularly when it includes additional obscure details: "These are the children of Yishma'el and these are their names, in their villages and fortresses, twelve princes of their peoples. These are the length of Yishma'el's years, one hundred and thirty seven years, and he peacefully died and was gathered to his ancestors. [His descendants] dwelt from Chavila all the way to Shur that is next to Egypt approaching Ashur, against all his brethren they settled." Although the Midrash and the Rashbam both downplayed the importance of Yishma'el and argued that his mention was tangential to the real protagonists, if we consider the passage in its own right, we may be in fact conclude that it highlights the man's glory!
THE REPOSE OF YISHMA'EL AND THE STRUGGLE OF ISRAEL
Yishma'el's sons, twelve in all, dwelt safely in their open-walled villages and fortresses, their settlements stretching all the way from the border with Egypt until far into the desert wilderness. Yishma'el himself died peacefully, no doubt full of pride at his ambitious children's accomplishments. His twelve sons, of course, parallel the twelve tribes of Israel whose own story was shortly to unfold. Overall, the account of Yishma'el's descendents is characterized by a pervasive sense of contentment and effortlessness, a refreshing simplicity, and a satisfying lack of intrigue, infighting and internal strife.
Not so the descendents of Yitzchak and Rivka. Their immediate children were locked in mortal combat while already in the womb, and Ya'acov's own life later was brimming over with disappointment and frustration. His twelve sons grew up to sometimes work together but more often to be at odds. In next week's Parasha, Yitzchak and Rivka both experience the great pain associated with their sons' strife, and according to the traditional chronology, Yitzchak lives on to see the tragedy of the sale and disappearance of his own grandchild Yosef!
Perhaps, then, the Torah is suggesting another dimension to the story. With the exclusion of Yishma'el from the patrimony, the Divine interest in the descendents of Avraham and Sarah begins to narrow. Henceforth, all attention will be focused on Yitzchak's descendents. Shortly, the convergence will be even more pronounced, as Esav is rejected and Ya'acov chosen. But the forging of God's nation will be a drawn-out process fraught with no small share of difficulty and more than occasional setbacks. Yishma'el and his children, Esav and his kin will in the meantime settle down and achieve stability and strength, but theirs is not to be the special destiny of Israel. This then may be the essence of Yishma'el's inclusion at this point, in a short paragraph that exudes complacency, prosperity and repose, in glaring contrast to the lot of his half-brother Yitzchak. To be God's chosen, it seems, is not to necessarily enjoy a national life of serenity and inertia, but rather to change the world. Such an exalted mission may include the Divine assurance of eventual triumph but it most assuredly does not carry the promise of ease.