The Banishment of Hagar and Yishmael
Avraham’s ninth test—the last before his final and greatest test, the ‘Akeda—was when Hashem told him to listen to Sara and send his maidservant Hagar and her son “away from me and from my son Yitzhak, from this world and from the next.” The Midrash adds: “And of all the misfortunes that had befallen Avraham in his lifetime, this was for him the worst.”
God gave our Father Avraham, the greatest ba’al hessed in all creation, many tests dealing with the quality of gevura [see “Our Forefathers’ Attributes”]. He bore a great love for his son Yishmael; and even after Yitzhak was born, his affection for Yishmael did not lessen. The command to banish him from his house was a great blow to Avraham, as we saw in the midrash quoted above. His quality of gevura was clearly demonstrated by the manner in which he performed this task. [See Bereshit 21:14.]
First, “He rose early in the morning”: with alacrity, without the slightest hesitation. Second: “He took bread and a flask of water.” Contrast this with the meal he served the three strangers! Then: “He put it on her shoulder, together with the child.” The boy was sick but God’s command was carried out immediately. And then: “She wandered in the desert.” He did not provide a servant to help her or guide her.
He proved himself to be in complete control of his emotions. Where apparent severity was demanded, he was perfectly able to provide it. If the mitzvah is “banishment,” then banishment it must be, in the full sense of the word. In this way, he fulfilled Hashem’s will in these particular circumstances and passed his tests completely. [A lesson was being taught. Even hessed has its limitations. It is not true hessed to tolerate an evil influence in one’s household. But even so the severity with which Avraham sent them away was only apparent. Avraham had already been told that he need not be unduly concerned about Yishmael; he would become a great nation. In this situation, miracles would be provided for their preservation.]
The Covenant with Avimelech
After the banishment of Hagar and Yishmael, the Torah begins a new parasha. “At that time, Avimelech…said to Avraham, ‘God is with you in all that you do’…and the two of them made a covenant.” Why does the Torah tell us that the covenant with Avimelech occurred just “at that time"?
The significance is this. Avraham, the master of hessed, certainly loved peace and pursued it in all his relationships. But particularly at that time—when he was obliged to act with apparent severity in turning Hagar and Yishmael out of his house—at that time particularly, he rejoiced in the opportunity to make a peace pact with Avimelech, the king of the Philistines.
However, we find that Hazal advance some criticism of Avraham’s action. Rashbam quotes a midrash which teaches the following:
God said to him: You gave [Avimelech] seven ewe lambs. By your life, [I swear to you] that his descendants will wage seven wars against your descendants and defeat them… By your life, his descendants will kill seven righteous men of your descendants; Shimshon, Hofni and Pinhas, Shaul and his three sons… By your life, his descendants will destroy seven temples: the Tabernacle, Gilgal, Nov, Shiloh, Giv’on, and the First and Second Temples. Also: The Ark of the Convenant was in captivity for seven months in the land of the Philistines.
Our Rabbis, with access to ruach ha-kodesh—the holy spirit—tell us that, according to the judgment of absolute truth, Avraham might have displayed a very slight excess of hessed in this connection. Avimelech was, after all, an idolatrous king who was occupying part of the territory promised ot Avraham. Perhaps by making such a pact, not only for himself, but also for future generations, he was prejudicing future battles which might be required in the process of conquering the land. Those future disasters, hint our Rabbis, may have been needed to atone for this very slight defect in Avraham Avinu’s middot.
Immediately after the account of the pact with Avimelech, the torah introduces the parasha of the ‘Akeda. This is prefaced by the words “After these things.” Again we can ask, What is the connection between these two parshiyot? Rashbam explains that one of the factors leading to the test of the ‘Akeda was the need to correct the very slight excess of hessed which Hazal detected in Avraham's eagerness to conclude the peace pact with Avimelech.