Everybody’s wondering what Ishmael did to the baby.

It seemed innocent enough. After little Isaac was born, Abraham and Sarah threw a party, to celebrate the miracle that God had done. They were far too old to have expected a child, after all. So everyone was invited to come share in their joy, with feasting and drinking.

And of course, Hagar and Ishmael were there. They were part of the household now. The maidservant Sarah had given to Abraham as a concubine had given birth to his first son, who was by now a teenager. And the boy appeared to be right at home, having fun at the party.

But then something happened. At least, Sarah seemed to think so.

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, playing around. (Gen. 21:9)

וַתֵּ֨רֶא שָׂרָ֜ה אֶֽת־בֶּן־הָגָ֧ר הַמִּצְרִ֛ית אֲשֶׁר־יָלְדָ֥ה לְאַבְרָהָ֖ם מְצַחֵֽק׃

Playing around? Well, isn’t that sweet! Was Ishmael playing with his little brother? Or perhaps he was just horsing around, amusing himself, as boys of that age will do.

But Sarah saw something more. Something that set her into a rage. She turned to Abraham, in the next verse, and exploded:

Cast that slave woman out with her son! For the son of that slave will not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac! (Gen. 21:10)

וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לְאַבְרָהָ֔ם גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יִירַשׁ֙ בֶּן־הָאָמָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את עִם־בְּנִ֖י עִם־יִצְחָֽק

What?! What has happened? Why is Sarah angry enough to throw a woman and her child out into the desert, presumably to wander off and die? What could she have seen that prompted such a reaction?

It all seems to come down to what exactly this “playing around” was. For the Hebrew word metzachek (מצחק), is rather ambiguous. There is some kind of frisky, sporting feel to it, but it doesn’t indicate any particular activity. So the commentators attempt to figure out what Ishmael could have been doing.

Rashi gives us three different possibilities – each of which is, indeed, extreme enough to justify Sarah’s outrage.

Playing around: this is the language of Idolatry… or, this is the language of incest… or,  this is the language of murder.

מצחקלשון עבודה זרה… דבר אחר לשון גילוי עריותדבר אחר לשון רציחה.

Goodness. So either Ishmael was worshipping idols in the house of these monotheism missionaries, or he was doing something sexually illicit, or he was trying to kill the baby.

Well, that is quite an array of possible sins! Now I begin to have a bit more sympathy for Sarah. If Ishmael was really trying to hurt my infant child, I would probably have thrown him out myself.

Now, these three possibilities were not chosen at random. Rashi brings textual proofs for each one. But more than that, the student of Jewish Law will recognize these as the three cardinal sins, the rare actions which one should be willing to die rather than committing (see Sanhedrin 74a). So Rashi is telling us that not only was Ishmael doing something terrible; he was doing the worst possible things you could imagine. Only such grave crimes could have incurred Sarah’s swift and severe punishment.

But, as is often the case in parshanut, when we solve one problem we create another. Rashi has given us an explanation for Sarah’s harsh reaction to what seemed like a harmless moment of fun. But now we have to imagine that not only is Ishmael some kind of burgeoning sociopath, but that the Torah alludes to his most sinister acts with the lighthearted phrase, “playing around.”

In fact, in one of the early sources that Rashi is drawing from, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai critiques the far-fetched nature of this interpretation – which, it turns out, was first given by Rabbi Akiva. The implicit debate between these two rabbis is one of the best explorations I have seen of the question: What are the limits of legitimate parshanut?

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai said, there are four places where I prefer my words to the words of Rabbi Akiva:

[One of them is upon the verse] “Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, “playing around” (metzachek).

Rabbi Akiva interpreted the “playing around” here as none other than Idolatry! As it says, “And the people sat down to eat and drink, and they got up to make merry (letzachek).” (Exodus 31)

Rabbi Yossi HaGalili says, “It is sexual perversion!  As it says, “The Hebrew slave came upon me to fool around with me (letzachek bi).” (Genesis 39)

Rabbi Yishmael says, “It is murder! As it says, “Avner said to Yoav, ‘Let the young men come forward and sport before us (yisachaku lifneinu)…Each one thrust his sword into his opponent’s side, and they all fell together.’” (Samuel 2:2)

And I say: “God forbid that there be, in the house of this righteous man, anyone doing such things! Rather, this “playing around” has to do with the inheritance – Ishmael was fooling around and saying, “I am the eldest, and so I will take a double portion.”

And I prefer my words to the words of Rabbi Akiva. (Tosefta Sotah 6)

אמר רש בן יוחאי ארבעה דברים היה רע דורש ודברי נראין מדבריו דרש רע (בראשית כאותרא שרה את בן הגר המצריתאשר ילדה לאברהם מצחק אין צחוק האמור כאן אלא עבודת כוכבים שנא’ (שמות לאוישב העם לאכול ושתו ויקומו לצחק

 ר’ יוסי הגלילי אומר אין צחוק האמור כאן אלא גילוי עריות שנא’ (בראשית לטבא אלי העבד וגו’ לצחק בי ר’ ישמעאל אומר איןלשון צחוק אלא שפיכות דמים שנא’ (שמואל ב בויאמר אבנר אל יואב יקומו נא הנערים וישחקו לפנינו [וגו’] ויקומו ויעברו במספר[וגו’] ויחזיקו איש בראש רעהו וחרבו בצד רעהו ויפלו יחדיו… ואני אומר חס ושלום שיהיה בביתו של [אותוצדיק ההוא כך.  אלאלענין ירושה שכשנולד אבינו יצחק לאברהם אבינו היו הכל שמחין ואומרין נולד בן לאברהם [נולד בן לאברהםנוחל את העולםונוטל שני חלקים ורואה אני את דברי מדברי רע 

Let us begin by acknowledging that Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues have done some impressive textual work in order to justify their claims. They have taken the word for “playing around,” metzachek, and found other uses of it in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), which – in context – indicate the sin that they then ascribe to Ishmael. This is classic midrash, the rabbinic method of Biblical interpretation.

Rabbi Akiva suggests idolatry because, at the worshipping of the Golden Calf, we are told that the people got up “to make merry” (letzachek – לצחק). So playing around is associated with idolatry.

Rabbi Yossi HaGalili suggests sexual transgression because when Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, and then takes revenge on his rejection by accusing him of sexual assault, she says that he tried “to fool around with me” (letzachek bi – לצחק בי ). So, as in English, playing/fooling around has a sexual connotation.

Rabbi Yishmael – whose name rings especially powerful as he accuses the first Ishmael of murder – suggests violence because when the young soldiers came and sparred with one another, they were told “to sport” (yisachaku – ישחקו), and then many of them died. So playing around is associated with violent death.

In this last instance, the interpretive method is already beginning to show cracks, because the verb Rabbi Yishmael uses as a proof, lesachek (לשחק), is close, but not the same as the verb for playing around, letzachek (לצחק). One already wonders if these rabbis are getting carried away with their fancy wordplay.

But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai objects to all of this on different grounds. In a pious exclamation, he says, “God forbid that there be, in the house of this righteous man, anyone doing such things!”  How dare they suggest that holy Abraham could have allowed idolatry, incest, and murder to take place right under his nose? An unthinkable insult to our Patriarch!

We needn’t be defending Abraham’s honor, however, to agree with Rabbi Shimon that all these explanations stretch credulity. Did this young man, who has given no indication of bad behavior so far, really try to strangle his baby brother? Or commit some terrible act of molestation? Such horrific crimes would surely have merited greater attention than the casual mention of “playing around.” And as for idolatry, where exactly did Ishmael find idols and how did he manage to worship them? Another version of the legend (in Genesis Rabbah 53:11) answers that he would catch grasshoppers and sacrifice them on a mini-altar he built. That should give you a sense of how far we have to stretch the imagination to make these interpretations fit into our story…

So what does Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai propose instead? That Ishmael’s “playing around” was his teasing Isaac about the inheritance. He stood over the baby, and said, “I am the eldest, and so I will take a double portion.”

Now this explanation fits nicely into our story, in a number of ways. First of all, it seems much more like the behavior of a fourteen-year-old boy. Mean-spirited perhaps, but just some natural sibling rivalry, born of jealousy. This less egregious transgression, then, also better fits the basic meaning of the word for “playing around.”

It also, most importantly, directly matches the words with which Sarah responds to the incident: “The son of that slave will not share in the inheritance with my son!”  Why was she so triggered to think about inheritance at that moment? Now we have an answer: Ishmael must have mentioned it.

What’s more, whether or not he was serious, Ishmael was playing into larger family tensions. For there was a real question over which of Abraham’s sons would be considered his bechor, his first-born, and would thus inherit both his wealth and – more importantly – the covenant that God made with Abraham “and his offspring.” Sarah, who for so many years, believed she had lost the chance to be the Matriarch of this covenant, now finally has an heir… and any threat to that child’s inheritance will send her into a protective motherly fury.

So Rabbi Shimon’s straightforward explanation makes much more sense of the narrative gaps in our story than did Rabbi Akiva’s wild interpretive methods. But it also may lead us to, finally, a sense of what the verb metzachek (מצחק) might mean here. Because the root of the verb is the same as the root of Isaac’s  name, in Hebrew – Yitzchak (יצחק)He was given this name because both Abraham and Sarah “laughed” when they heard they would have a child. Playing around often involves laughing, so we can see how the two are related.

But in this context, next to Isaac’s crib, teasing him about the inheritance, we begin to understand that Ishmael was doing more than just playing around. He was, more precisely, “Isaac-ing.”  In other words, he was trying tobe Isaac – to take his place, to be the inheritor. In Rabbi Shimon’s framework, we can begin to see that what appears to be ambiguous language is actually hinting to us at exactly what was going on, on a psychological level, and why it made Sarah so angry.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is having a serious debate with Rabbi Akiva about the limits of interpretation. He accuses Rabbi Akiva and his fellow interpreters of going too far, of playing fast and loose with the text. It is true, they find amazing connections that reach across the whole of the Biblical narrative and loop two stories together with the hitch of a common verb. Their mastery of the text is remarkable, and their creative powers are virtuosic. But when we return to the local scene, says Rabbi Shimon, we find it distorted, stretching to accommodate this wild new information, and rendering the original story outlandish. Instead, he suggests, we ought to just look at the text in front of us, and try our best to understand it in its own, local context.

But Rabbi Shimon is also proving that this more contained approach, far from being straightforward and boring, has the capacity to release new layers of meaning that are hidden in the text itself. The story in front of us is like a puzzle with a missing piece. If, instead of jamming in something that doesn’t fit, we can patiently search for exactly the right bit of information, then when we put it gently into place, the whole picture comes together, with greater depth and beauty than we had anticipated.

There is an art to good interpretation. One can still play around with the text without doing violence to it.


About Rabbi David Kasher

Check Also

Finding Holiness in Living and Dying: Introduction to Jewish Death Practices

Join author Rick Light on June 10, 2024, at Boulder JCC for a workshop on Jewish death practices, including a free book and Q&A session.

Cultures Tornado

A new poem from Todd Greenberg.