Taking the ‘El’ Out of Yishma-‘El’
PARSHAS LECH LECHA
“Taking the ‘El’ Out of Yishma-‘El’”
We find that Avraham prayed on behalf of Yishmael in this week’s parsha, as it says, “And Avraham said to God, ‘O’ that Yishmael might live before You” (Lech Lecha, 17:18). Some of us might cringe when reading about this prayer that Avraham offered on behalf of Yishmael because we might be asking ourselves, “How could Avraham pray on behalf of Yishmael if Avraham saw with Divine inspiration that Yishmael would not follow his [Avraham’s] holy ways? Moreover, how could Avraham pray on behalf of someone whose descendants would cause so much pain and suffering to the Jewish people?”
Speaking of Yishmael, we find another difficulty. There were many great Torah scholars whose names were Yishmael. For instance, the Gemara in Meseches Berachos (chap. 1, “M’eimasai”, pg. 7a) tells us about Rebbi Yishmael ben Elisha who was a Kohen Gadol. Once, on Yom Kippur, when Rebbi Yishmael ben Elisha entered into the Kodesh Hakadashim (Holy of Holies), he had a vision of God sitting upon His high and exalted throne. God asked him [Rebbi Yishmael] to bless Him [God], and he did.
Another example of a Torah great who was named Yishmael is found in the preface to the Safra which we say every morning prior to Pesukei d’Zimra. This paragraph is called, “The Breisa of Rebbi Yishmael.” It begins by saying, “Rebbi Yishmael said that through thirteen rules the Torah is elucidated.” He goes on to list the thirteen rules by name.
In fact, throughout the Mishna and Talmud, whether in Halachic discussions or in Aggadic passages, we find Rebbi Yishmael quoted repeatedly. Often times, Rebbi Yishmael argues with Rebbi Akiva.
This brings us to another question. How could all of these tzaddikim bear the name Yishmael if this name originated from Yishmael the son of Avraham Avinu who was considered to be a rasha (wicked person) who was guilty of transgressing all three cardinal sins: idolatry, immorality, and murder (see Rashi, Parshas Vayeira, 21:9, based upon Parshas Ki Sisa, 32:6; Parshas Vayeishev, 39:17; and Shmuel Beis, 2:14)?
To strengthen this question, we find a verse in Mishlei (10:7) which says, “Remembrance of a righteous one brings blessing, but the name of the wicked one will rot.” The Gemara in Meseches Yoma (chap. 3, “Amar Lahem Hamemuneh”, pg. 38b) quotes Rebbi Elazar who says that this verse means that rottenness enters into the names of wicked people. Therefore, we do not engage in using those names to name our children after them (see Rashi ibid).
There have been several answers offered to address this last question. For example, some say that since Yishmael did teshuva (see Rashi, Parshas Chayei Sara, 25:9, quoting Bereishis Rabba, Parshas Noach, 38:12, and Parshas Lech Lecha, 15:15), it is permissible to be named after him because it is like being named after a tzaddik (Tosafos Yeshanim, written by Tosafists from France between the years 1200 and 1400, Yoma pg. 38b).
Tosafos Yeshanim quotes Reb Yochanan who says that even according to the opinion that says that Yishmael was a rasha his entire life (Sanhedrin, chap. 11, “Cheilek”, pg. 104a), it is still permissible to name a child after him because Hashem Himself named Hagar’s son Yishmael (see Parshas Lech Lecha, 16:11), and a name given by Hashem is automatically holy.
As we proceed, we will see another answer to this question. In the meantime, let us ask another question. Why would Hashem call him by the name Yishmael if Hashem already knew that he would not be considered Avraham’s seed (see Parshas Vayeira, 21:12)? What purpose did the name Yishmael serve?
A few verses in this week’s parsha, together with Rashi, will lead to a chiddush (novelle idea) that will begin to address an approach that will answer all of these questions.
The first verse that we will focus on tells us that Hashem told Avraham that He would establish a covenant with Yitzchak and his offspring after him (Parshas Lech Lecha, 17:19).
The second verse under discussion tells us that Hashem told Avraham that He has heard Avraham’s prayers on behalf of Yishmael. Therefore, Hashem promised Avraham to bless Yishmael and make him into a great nation (Parshas Lech Lecha, 17:20).
The third verse under discussion tells us that Hashem told Avraham that He would maintain a covenant with Yitzchak (Parshas Lech Lecha, 17:21).
Rashi (Parshas Lech Lecha, 17:19) asks why it was necessary to promise Avraham in the third verse (verse 21) that He would make a covenant with Yitzchak, if Hashem had already told Avraham that He would make a covenant with Yitzchak earlier in the first verse (verse 19)?
Rashi cites the Bereishis Rabba (Parshas Lech Lecha, 47:5) which quotes Rebbi Aba bar Kahana in the name of Rebbi Biri who answers this question by saying that we learn a Kal Va’chomer from here. Before we continue with Rebbi Aba’s answer, we must define what a Kal Va’chomer is.
A Kal (light) Va’chomer (heavy) means that if a lenient case has a stringency, then logic dictates that the same stringency must apply to a stricter case. Now that we have defined what a Kal Va’chomer is, we can return to the Midrash which Rashi cites.
Rebbi Aba said that these three verses teach us a Kal Va’chomer from the son (Yishmael) of the maidservant (Hagar) to the son (Yitzchak) of the princess (Sarah). This means to say that since Hashem blessed Yishmael in the second verse (verse 20), Hashem repeated His blessing to Yitzchak in the third verse (verse 21), even though Hashem had already blessed Yitzchak in the first verse (verse 19), so that we learn a Kal Va’chomer from Yishmael to Yitzchak.
That Kal Va’chomer is, “If Hashem blessed Yishmael (the son of a maidservant), then He must certainly bless Yitzchak (the son of the princess).
The B’nei Yissaschar (Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, Poland, 1783-1841; Tishrei, 12:4) explains that we need this Kal Va’chomer for a time when the Jewish people are not deserving to receive blessings. Even so, we apply this Kal Va’chomer to them by saying “If You [Hashem] blessed Yishmael who was undeserving and who was the son of a maidservant, then You [Hashem] must certainly bless Yitzchak and his descendants because, although they are also undeserving, nevertheless, they are the descendants of the princess.
According to this, the first verse (verse 19) was God’s promise to bless Yitzchak and his descendants when they are deserving. However, when God repeated His blessing about Yitzchak in the third verse (verse 21), it meant that He would bless Yitzchak even if he was undeserving. All of this is because in the second verse (verse 20) Hashem blessed Yishmael who was undeserving and who was the son of a mere maidservant. If such a person would be blessed, then Yitzchak, the son of the princess, should surely be blessed, even if he is undeserving.
The B’nei Yissaschar adds that this explains why his name was “Yishmael” (God will listen) in future tense and not “Shamael” (God has already heard) in past tense if the verse says explicitly that this name was because Hashem had already heard, as it says, “You will name him Yishmael for Hashem has heard your prayer” (Parshas Lech Lecha, 16:11). The reason for a future tense name is because every time the Jewish people will require salvation in the future, even if they will be undeserving, Hashem will still listen to their prayers on account of the Kal Va’chomer from the son of a slave woman to the son of the princess.
Moreover, if Hashem listened to the prayers of a sinner such as Yishmael, then He would most certainly listen to the prayers of the Jewish people who are comprised of Jews where each and every one of them is filled with mitzvos like a pomegranate is filled with seeds (Berachos, chap. 9, “Haroeh”, pg. 57a).
Besides, the last two letters of the Name Yishmael spells the Name of God, “Keil,” (spelled aleph lamed). This means that there is something about Yishmael which awakens the Name of God, “Keil.” The Name Keil incorporates all of the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s mercy. Let us explore this point a little bit further.
The Maggid of Mezritch (Rabbi Dov Ber, 1704-1772, Poland) teaches that the Yud Gimmel Middos Shehatorah Nidreshes Bahen (Thirteen rules through which the Torah is expounded upon) corresponds to the Yud Gimmel Middos Shel Rachamim (Thirteen Attributes of Hashem’s Mercy).
In addition, the Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, 1534 Jerusalem – 1572 Tzfas; Eitz Chaim, Sha’ar 13, chap. 11) says that the names “Hashem Hashem” which are mentioned at the beginning of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are considered to be the roots of the thirteen. Only after those Names of God do the actual Thirteen Attributes begin; Keil Rachum Vichanun, Erech Apayim, Virav Chesed Ve’emes etc. (Almighty, Compassionate, Gracious, Slow to Anger, Abundant in Kindness, and Truth, etc. Parshas Ki Sisa, 34:6-7).
According to this, it turns out that the first attribute of mercy is the Name “Keil,” which corresponds to the first way of elucidating upon the Torah which is “Kal Va’chomer.”
By the way, I find it interesting how “Keil” is phonetically related to “Kal Va’chomer.” We pronounce Hashem’s Name as Keil (as if there is a letter Kuf in the word instead of a letter aleph) so as not to say His Name unnecessarily. But by doing so, we have a word “Keil” which is spelled with the very same letters as the word “Kal” in “Kal Vachomer.”
The Ropshitzer Rebbe (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi, 1760-1827, Poland; Parshas Lech Lecha, divrei hamaschil “Vayateik”) adds that the first Name of God in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, “Keil,” incorporates all of the thirteen attributes of mercy (see Tehillim, 52:3).
Therefore, when we use Kal Va’chomer to awaken the Name Keil, we are actually awakening all of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that this approach will help us answer the question about how there were great tzaddikim who came to have the name Yishmael, given that the first Yishmael was a rasha for most of his life. The answer is as follows.
In Yalkut Shimoni (Yeshaya, Remez 449) it tells us that a name contains the essence of a person’s nature and personality. Moreover, the Gemara in Berachos (chap. 1, M’eimasai” pg. 7b, Rebbi Elazar, based upon Tehillim, 46:9) tells us that a person’s name can even cause things to happen.
Therefore, the Jewish parents of all those Jewish babies out there who named their children Yishmael, saw with Divine inspiration that the souls of their children were connected to the name Yishmael. They knew that the souls were not connected to the wickedness of Yishmael, but rather they saw that their souls were connected to the Kal Va’chomer which stems from Yishmael.
In other words, those parents saw that their son’s souls were connected to the idea of “Yishma – Keil” (God would listen) to the prayers of the Jewish people, by means of a Kal Va’chomer from Yishmael ben Avraham. They saw that their sons’ souls were connected to the Name “Keil” of the Thirteen Attributes of God’s Mercy. They saw that their sons had the power of awakening the Thirteen Attributes of God’s Mercy on behalf of the Jewish people.
By giving their sons the name Yishmael, they were trying to concretize within them the power of awakening the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy on behalf of the Jewish people.
This is why it was specifically Rebbi Yishmael who taught us that the first of the ways to elucidate upon the Torah is Kal Va’chomer. It is because his Name [Yishmael] can cause there to be a Kal Va’chomer from Yishmael ben Avraham [the son of a slave woman] to Yitzchak [the son of a spiritual princess] which gets the Jewish people’s prayers answered even if they are engaged in sinful activities.
This is why Hashem named Hagar’s son Yishmael. It is because Hashem wanted to awaken the Kal Va’chomer on behalf of the Jewish people, and Hashem wanted to awaken the Name Keil found at the end of Yishmael so that the prayers of the Jews would always be listened to by Hashem, bringing about their salvation.
This is what Hashem wanted from Rebbi Yishmael ben Elisha when He [Hashem] asked him [Rebbi Yishmael] to “bless Him [Hashem].” Hashem was asking that Rebbi Yishmael awaken the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy which would enable Hashem [so to speak] to shower the Jewish people with many blessings, even if they were undeserving (GR”A , Reb Eliyahu, 1720-1797; Biur HaGR”A). Rebbi Yishmael ben Elisha did just that when he said, “May Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes.” This was a prayer requesting that Hashem allow His Thirteen Attributes of Mercy to prevail over Him so that the Jewish people would be the recipients of abundant good, no matter what.
Furthermore, It was precisely Rebbi Yishmael, whose name evokes the Kal Va’chomer, who could awaken the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. It is the name Yishmael, in future tense, which teaches us that God would always listen to the prayers of the Jewish people throughout the ages, even if they would be involved in sinful activities. It is the Name “Keil” at the end of the name Yishmael which activated the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that are contained within the Name Keil.
The Shvilei Pinchas concludes by saying that now we can understand how Avraham could daven on behalf of Yishmael, even though he knew that Yishmael was no tzaddik, and even though he knew that Yishmael would be a source of so much pain and suffering to the Jewish people throughout the ages.
The answer is that when Avraham heard that an angel, who spoke in the Name of God, instructed Hagar to name her son Yishmael, Avraham recognized that there was a spark of holiness contained within that name which would serve to bring salvation to the Jewish people. That holy spark stemmed from the Name Keil at the end of the name Yishmael.
Avraham realized that the Name Keil was the Name of God which encompassed all of the Yud Gimmel Middos of Rachamim. Avraham also realized that the Name Keil, which is the first of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, corresponds to Kal Va’chomer, the first of the Yud Gimmel Middos that the Torah is elucidated with.
As such, Avraham realized that his son Yishmael had the capacity of awakening compassion on behalf of his brother’s [Yitzchak’s] descendants. But since Yishmael ben Avraham Avinu would never do anything to help the Jewish people, Hashem bestowed the name Yishmael to a number of Tanaim and to quite a few tzaddikim, including a Kohein Gadol, so that they would be empowered to awaken the Yud Gimmel Middos of Rachamim on behalf of the Jewish people.
This is why Avraham prayed on behalf of Yishmael. It is because Avraham was trying to say that if Hashem would spare an empty rasha like Yishmael who was the son of the slave woman, Hagar, then Hashem would most certainly spare mitzva filled Jews who are the descendants of the spiritual princess, Sarah.
It turns out that Avraham’s whole prayer on behalf of Yishmael was for the benefit of the Jewish people so that their prayers would be answered even if they would be undeserving.
For this week’s practical application, let us try to say the Breisa of Rebbi Yishmael every morning [at least the first opening sentence]. When we say the words, “Rebbi Yishmael,” let us pause and remember that if Hashem listened to Yishmael ben Avraham Avinu’s prayers, then Hashem will certainly listen to our prayers, by means of the Kal Va’chomer.
Additionally, when we mention the first of the Yud Gimmel Middos Shehatorah Nidreshes Bahen, which is Kal Va’chomer, let us be further reminded that it is by means of a Kal Va’chomer that Hashem will listen to our prayers.
Let us also be reminded of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy contained within the Name Keil which appears at the end of the name Yishmael, so that Hashem will be moved to utilize the Yud Gimmel Middos of Rachamim to save us from all sorts of tragedies, even if we are not deserving.
When we finish the recitation of this Breisa of Rebbi Yishmael, let us offer the following prayer:
“Dear God, even if we are undeserving, please use the Thirteen Middos of Rachamim to rescue us because they correspond to the Thirteen Middos of how the Torah is elucidated, and since Rebbi Yishmael taught them to us, may You be moved to utilize the Thirteen Middos of Rachamim for us by means of a Kal Va’chomer – from Yishmael the son of a slave woman to Yitzchak the son of the princess – which awakens the Name Keil which will protect us – B’nei Yisra-el.”
Perhaps we could suggest that it is for this very reason that we say the Rebbi Yishmael paragraph prior to davening. It is because, once the Kal Va’chomer has been invoked by the recitation of this Breisa of Rebbi Yishmael, we can proceed to pray because we are guaranteed that our prayers will also be answered.
So, may we Bnei Yisra-el be blessed by means of a Kal Va’chomer from Yishma-el which will trigger the Thirteen Middos of Rachamim that are wrapped up in the Name Keil – even if we are undeserving – as Rebbi Yishmael Kohein Gadol put it, “And May Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes,” and therefore, may our prayers always be accepted by God.