Shabbat Toldot

Candles December 2nd 4:10pm
Havdalah December 3rd 5:05pm

The character of Ishmael is ambiguous. He made fun of Isaac. He was driven out and went to live a life of preying on others. Yet his home became the home of Isaac, Be’er LeChai Roi and together Isaac and Esau buried their father and the hatchet. Similarly, Esau. He is ambiguous.

We see him first as a devious hunter, in contrast to the straighter, home body Jacob. He is a man of instant gratification. He wants his soup now at any cost. He disregards the responsibilities of the Birth Right. He marries against his parents’ wishes. He is too impetuous to be a good leader. But he is not all bad. He is a good son, serving game to his father. When he is denied the Blessing, he cries. And in the end, we know he will be reconciled to Jacob.

So why does the Midrash (the tradition of explaining the Torah texts) set out to make both of them all negative with no shred of good. Ishmael is a thief and a bully. Esau ids a rapist, a lier and a killer.

One answer may be the historical. Ishmael was associated with Islam, Esau with Rome and Christianity. When the Midrashim were compiled both empires were oppressing the Jews. Esau and Ishmael were codes for the causes of their suffering. Making them out to be completely evil was therapeutic and comforting.

But the Midrash itself also says that we judge people by the results, by their legacy. It is possible to say that all of the characters in the Torah are ambiguous, with different sides to their characters. What matters are the results. And if they are negative, if the succeeding generations fail in their moral missions, it is a reflection on their progenitors.