Who is the real heir of Avraham’s philosophy of life? There are many possibilities. First there is his nephew, Lot, who is with Avraham in Ur Kasdim, long before Avraham’s migration to Canaan. Then there is Eliezer, Avraham’s top student. He is placed in charge of Avraham’s entire household and is the person Avraham later sends on a mission to find a wife for Yitzchak. Ishmael, Avraham’s son with Hagar, and Yitzchak, Avraham’s son with Sarah, are of course in the running. Finally, Avraham has six other sons with a woman named Keturah. So which one is it?
Lot took himself out of consideration as heir. If learning with Avraham and living by his philosophy of life was so important to him, there were certainly other options available to him rather than choosing to live in the evil society of Sodom. This choice was telling. Perhaps he intellectualized Avraham’s philosophy but he did not embrace it as the essential way to live.
Avraham, himself, thought Eliezer should be heir to his philosophy of life and he even says so to God. (Bereishit 15:3) But God tells Avraham, “That one will not inherit you. Only him that shall come from within you shall inherit you.” What was at the core in the difference of opinion between Avraham and God? Avraham was well up in years and he and Sarah had not had any children. The most logical person to carry on his life style was his greatest student. Who could pass on Avraham’s revolutionary system of ideas for living better than Eliezer?
While this thought was correct, Hashem disagreed. There was another factor to consider in spreading these ideas to others. People who would hear them would still associate Eliezer only as Avraham’s servant. They would use that fact as a ploy to minimize or disparage the philosophy. Rather than just considering the ideas on their own merit, weighing of the veracity of the ideas would always be clouded by the fact that that they were coming from Avraham’s servant.
Hashem then informed Avraham that his heir will be from his seed. But it is Sarah who now steps in and does a very heroic act to bring about God’s will. Seeing that she cannot conceive, she presents Avraham with an alternative solution. Perhaps her role in God’s plan is not to bare their son, but only just to raise him with the correct philosophy. In that way she will participate in building a nation with the true philosophy together with Avraham. She convinces Avraham to take her maidservant, Hagar, as his wife. Avraham follows Sarah’s advice and he and Hagar have a son, Ishmael. So now there will be a direct biological heir to Avraham’s philosophy. The stigma that would have been associated with Eliezer as head of this new movement will now be removed. Thus the plan to build a nation with Avraham’s philosophy seems complete. Avraham and Sarah did everything a rational person can do to be in line with God’s will.
However, after 13 years God informs Avraham of the final plan. A private miracle would occur for Sarah and they would conceive a child together. Why would the nation be built in this way? God teaches an important idea, one that we would not learn any other way. Avraham and Sarah fully embraced the true philosophy of life. Of course they knew God created the universe and by virtue of that He has complete control over it. God could intervene in the natural law but neither Avraham nor Sarah ever had an expectation that God would do so for them. They laughed in amazement when God told them they would have a child together at this late stage in their lives. God was informing them that the development and continued of existence of this philosophic nation was unique. Sometimes this nation would require that a breach of the natural law occur. The true heir would carry this mark of distinction as well as just being a direct biological descendant. This person would be Yitzchak.
Sarah does one more important act that permanently demonstrates that Yitzchak is the one and only rightful heir to Avraham’s philosophy. Seeing the interaction of Ishmael with Yitzchak, Sarah is rightly disturbed. Ishmael’s conduct testified that he did not have the right personality or character traits to embrace Avraham’s way of life. She tells Avraham to send Ishmael and Hagar away. While painful to Avraham, God tells him in this week’s parasha, Vayeira, “Be not distressed over the youth or your maidservant. Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice, since through Yitzchak will offspring be considered yours.” (Bereishit 21: 11-12)
By banishing Ishmael and Hagar from the house of Avraham, Sarah forever protected the claim as to who is the true philosophic heir to Avraham’s way of life. Simply, Ishmael was not around to learn the philosophy from Avraham. For over 2500 years, the only people that ever identified with Avraham were Yitzchak’s descendants from his son Yaakov, nation of Israel. Only more recently, around 630 of the Common Era, has a person and his followers claimed that they are the rightful philosophic descendants of Avraham. They are the followers of Islam. It is a way of life dramatically different in actions and ideas from the philosophy of Avraham. Furthermore, where have they been all these thousands of years!
In the merit that today we embrace the philosophy of Avraham and Sarah, may Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, the Jewish people and God fearing people the world over.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan