One of the things we learn in the Torah, starting with this week’s parsha, is that resisting the temptation to wallow in victimhood is a very admirable skill. One of our prime role models for this capability is none other than Yishmael.
Yishmael was put in a situation where he might have chosen to feel victimized. If Avraham’s preference for Yitzchak was not bad enough, the manner in which Yishmael is sent out of his house could easily have created a desire for Yishmael to permanently estrange himself from Avraham’s family (Bereshit 21:14). From this perspective, Yishmael’s greatest challenge goes beyond acknowledging his position of relative inferiority. His greatest challenge becomes suppressing the natural inclination to forever seek redress for the injustice he certainly must have felt. Yet only after suppressing this inclination could he objectively compare his own merits to those of Yitzchak.
Yishmael outwardly meets this challenge by allowing his younger brother to take the lead in burying their father (see Rashi, on Bereshit 25:9). He also displays his inner peace with the situation by allowing his own daughter Machalat to marry Avraham’s grandson, Esav (Bereshit 28:9), thereby forever reinforcing his own connection to Yitzchak’s family.
I cannot help but think that Yishmael’s challenge may also be the major challenge of the Arab world, as it regards the State of Israel. Like Yishmael, the Arabs could legitimately claim to be the victims, the ones who were first, only to be subsequently mistreated. In the Torah we see that Yishmael only prevails when he pushes such a claim aside. I wonder if it is not just such an attitudinal change that is needed to bring about an end to the political conflict in the Middle East.
The Arab masses are, admirably, more religious than other peoples. But so long as they frequently revert to victimhood and focus on the misdeeds of others, instead of looking inward and taking stock of their own shortcomings, they will be forever doomed to a moral mediocrity, unbecoming of the descendants of Avraham.
This Dvar Torah was adapted by Harry Glazer from pages 65-66 in the chapter “Redeeming Our Nation: Yishmael and Yisrael,” in Rabbi Francis Nataf’s book Redeeming Relevance In the Book of Genesis: Explorations in Text and Meaning (Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2006).