The following drasha was given at the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo on Shabbat Vayera, 5748 (1987), and transcribed from memory by Jeffery Zucker.
WHERE DO YOU STAND?
The Torah relates a heart-rending story. Abraham evicts Hagar and his son Ishmael from his house. He supplies them with some basic necessities, water and bread, but the water runs out. In the desert they begin to cry bitterly as they thirst for water and finally, the Torah tells us, a messenger of G-d appears to Hagar and tells her not to worry, G-d has heard the voice of the child "as he stands" (Gen. 21:17). She opens her eyes and there, miraculously, is a well of water waiting to quench the thirst of the dying child.
What is the meaning of the verse "as he stands"? Rashi tells us that this means that G-d is going to judge Ishmael according to his present spiritual condition. He is not going to judge him according to what he is going to become. Even though there will come a time (during the exile of Nebuchadnezzar) when the People of Israel will be dying of thirst, and they will go to the descendants of Ishmael thinking: "He is our uncle, he will surely give us water!" but instead Ishmael will send them empty canteens so that they will all die, now however he is not yet guilty, so he merits this miracle of a well of water.
This is very peculiar! If we turn back in the Torah just a few sentences and examine why it was that Abraham evicted Ishmael, Rashi makes the reason very clear. On the verse "Sarah saw Hagar's son ... playing" (Gen. 21:14), Rashi comments that Ishmael was involved in idolatry, incest, and murder. So al- though it is true that he might not yet have deprived a thirsty person of water, even so it is quite difficult to consider him a tzadik in his present condition!
The Meshech Chachmah (commenting not on this parsha but on the Book of Exodus) lays down the following principle. There seem to be two types of transgressions: sins such as idolatry, which represent misdirection, and sins such as cruelty, which indicate a serious flaw of character.
The first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed due to idolatry, incest and murder. That destruction lasted seventy years. The second Temple was destroyed because of causeless hate -- and has remained destroyed until today!
Another example: G-d seemed to forgive the People of Israel for the sin of the Golden calf, but we are still suffering from the sin of the spies who gave a slanderous report about Israel. The Meshech Chachmah explains that although the prescribed punishment of the Torah for transgressions such as idolatry are greater, a sin which shows ruthlessness is yet deeper, and perhaps worse. After all G-d had done to give the Jewish People the Land of Israel, they had nothing but criticism for that Land.
This, explains the Meshech Chachmah, is why the first Temple was speedily rebuilt but the second Temple remains destroyed.
In this way, perhaps, we could answer our question also. The sins which Ishmael did in the house of Abraham were terrible, but forgivable. The sins that he would do in future generations represented not only a warped viewpoint but a total lack of goodness. And in the meantime, says G-d, I must still miraculously produce water for him!
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
Rabbi Haber is the OU's National Director of Jewish Education and the spiritual leader of the OU's Pardes Program
"A tree of life for those who embrace it"
Send comments to Rabbi Haber at firstname.lastname@example.org