Along with empathy for the innocent victims, most Jews in the world thought or sighed wearily aloud: “We told you. Why didn’t you listen? Why didn’t you believe us when we cried and died?”
We are condemned for trying to do what virtually everyone in the world now claims to be planning. And so, it seems somewhat cruel when we shrug helplessly, thinking and whispering, “Where were you yesterday and the day before?” But we, who have lost so many over so long a period, find it hard to mourn, although these bodies are still warm, the blood still fresh.
We are not jaded, but we are weary. All we can do is go back to the very beginning and at least remind ourselves how all of this has been foretold and predicted. The names do not matter. Whether it is Al-Qaeda or ISIS, the source is in the twisted soul of Yishmoel.
It was an angel who brought Hagar the ominous prediction: “You will…give birth to a son, you shall name him Yishmoel. And he will be a wild donkey of a man. His hand shall be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him” (Bereishis 16:11-12). We have ancient traditions about the meaning of these fateful words. Rashi immediately notes, “He will be a robber…everyone will hate him and do battle with him.” It took a while, but we have caught up with Rashi in the name of Chazal.
The Ibn Ezra, among other descriptions, concludes that Yishmoel will “triumph over all by force.”
A number of 19th century gedolim – Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin and the Chofetz Chaim – all arrived at the identical thought that the posuk should have said adam pereh, which is the way Hebrew, the holy tongue, would usually list a descriptive phrase, such as adam tov, meaning a good man. Instead, the Torah states that Yishmoel was a pereh adam, which does not seem to follow the grammatical pattern of Lashon Hakodesh. These three Torah giants, and perhaps others, therefore conclude that Yishmoel was not simply a man with the trait of wildness. No. Actually, his primary definition was the uncivilized barbaric character of a feral terrorist. The fact that he happened to be a man was incidental to his uncontrollable brutality. All of the various excuses and faux causes over the centuries have been mere facades to hide the intrinsic savagery that would eventually be condemned in the city of lights last week.
The “hand” mentioned at Yishmoel’s birth is the “hand” Jews have lamented for centuries in the Yom Tov Mussaf as having been extended against our Bais Hamikdosh (Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznayim LaTorah). It is the hand that has set off thousands of suicide and homicide bombs, murdering hundreds of thousands — and more — over the millennia. The Medrash (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer, end of chapter 30) poignantly teaches that no other enemy — and we have had many horrific ones — is described with the lament, “Oy, who could possibly live through his days?” (see Bamidbar 24:23).
But even this is insufficient to depict the extent of Yishmoel’s villainy. The major disciple of the Arizal, Rav Chaim Vital (Etz Hadaas Tov, Tehillim 124), distinguishes Yishmoel from all the empires that enslaved Klal Yisroel: “While all the others wished to convert us to their faith, only Yishmoel wished to totally devour us.” The Chofetz Chaim was heard to cry aloud over “the terrifying diabolical abuses Yishmoel will commit against Am Yisroel in the era preceding Moshiach” (see Dibros Tzvi, page 188). Well, what about the Nazis? Weren’t they worse? Someone who had the credibility to make a judgment, the Klausenberger Rebbe, asserted that “Yishmoel is much worse, even than the Nazis” (Hadar Yaakov 4:21), and he was gratified when he heard that another survivor, Rav Aharon Rokeach, the Belzer Rebbe, agreed with this assessment.
Still, what made Yishmoel worse than the German murderers, usually considered the very embodiment of evil? Rav Yitzchok Yaakov, the Rebbe of Biala (Divrei Binah, Bereishis, page 180) points out that while even Haman had descendents who converted and studied Torah in Bnei Brak, Yishmoel never merited having geirim enter Klal Yisroel. His evil was such that Am Yisroel’s kedushah would have to reject the toxic body from its midst.
Perhaps, after all the recent intifadas and brutal murders, we begin to understand the Biala Rebbe’s teaching. This also seems to be the message of the Medrash Hagadol (end of Chayei Sarah) that the words heima lamilchamah literally mean “Yishmoel’s essence is war.” The purpose and immediate venue are unimportant and just distract from the bitter truth. All they want is war.
Perhaps what makes Yishmoel so terrible is that he had so much potential and squandered it on wanton violence. The Medrash (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer, ibid,) records the astonishing fact that only Yishmoel and, lehavdil, Klal Yisroel have Hashem’s name at the end of their own. It has been pointed out (Rav Amram Biton, Esmach B’tzion, page 125) that all of Yishmoel’s murderous jihads, bombings and stabbings are punctuated by their cries that it is all being perpetrated in G-d’s name. Of course, their actions are anything but a representation of G-d’s will, but their screams give the appalling perception that they are committing religious acts. This, more than any other, is the source of their depravity. No other villain has ever committed so much mayhem while declaring that it is all the will of G-d. This is part of his sinister infamy. But the evil goes even deeper.
Yishmoel was the son of Avrohom Avinu and Hagar, whom Avrohom later remarried under the name Keturah (Rashi 25:1). The Seforno (16:7) points out that his name arose from a combination of his mother’s prayers and the angel’s promise that her tefillos would be answered. One would have hoped – and the potential was surely there – for a noble creature to be the result. But Yishmoel perverted what could have been a virtuous destiny, becoming the Arafat, Bin Laden, Ayatollah and the Mufti of mankind’s nightmares. Instead of becoming someone whom Hashem would listen to – yishma Keil – he became the person who would cause Hashem to listen to our prayers because of his evil (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 32). Chazal (Sukkah 52b) indeed tell us that even the Creator Himself, kevayachol, regrets bringing him into the world. However one understands this cryptic statement, no other nation functioning today carries the disdain of the Borei Olam in this way.
It is sad to watch and listen to the semantic games being played concerning Yishmoel. The current American administration refuses to even use the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” while others insist on adding the appellation “radical” to the basic group civilization should be battling.
Chazal and our gedolim through the ages obviously knew and taught us the truth. The last great war before Moshiach will be with the physical and spiritual descendents of Yishmoel. Perhaps it is part of Hashem’s plan that the world should begin to appreciate what we have suffered all these years, but that may be too much to ask. All we can and must do is continue to be significantly different than our mortal enemy. We must learn more Torah, perform more mitzvos, and do more true chesed. Then, with Hashem’s help, we can triumph over this ancient enemy as the prelude to Moshiach Tzidkeinu.