The Savagery of Yishmael

מרן הגאב"ד שליט"א
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Unable to curse Bnei Yisroel, Bilam returned to his homeland in disgrace.  But before he went, he turned his powers of prophecy to the future, to gaze behind the curtains of secrecy, and foretell what would befall the nations of the world in the end of days.  Among these prophecies, he said the following possuk:


"וישא משלו ויאמר אוי מי יחיה משמו אל."


“And he lifted his parable (employed his powers of prophecy) and said, ‘Woe!  Who will survive their decree?”[1]


What is the meaning of this cryptic prophecy?  To whom did Bilam refer, and to which decree?

It seems that Bilam referred to our own generation, and to the harsh decrees of Yishmael, the progenitor of the Arab race.  In these days, we are forced to stand by and watch with despondent eyes and aching hearts, as our enemies have their way with us.  The blood of Bnei Yisroel is spilled like water, and we are powerless to stop it.

Where lies the strength of Yishmael, such that until Moshiach’s arrival they have such terrible power to hurt and destroy?  Our Sages note that other than Bnei Yisroel, Yishmael is the only nation that merited to have Hashem’s Name, Keil, incorporated in their own – Yishma-el.  The Midrash states:


אמר בלעם משבעים לשונות שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא בעולמו לא שם שמו לאחד מהם אלא לישראל. הואיל והשוה הקדוש ברוך הוא שמו של ישמעאל לשמו של ישראל אוי מי יחיה בימיו שנאמר אוי מי יחיה משומו אל.


Bilam said that from all the seventy nations that HaKadosh Baruch Hu created in His world, He did not attach His Nameto any of theirs, except for Yisrael.  Since He equated the name of Yishmael to the name of Yisroel, woe is to any who live in their days, as the possuk states, “Woe!  Who will survive their decree?”[2]


Bilam foresaw the darkness that was destined to befall Bnei Yisroel, and the rivers of blood and tears that would sweep through the land, when the savage hand of Yishmael would fall upon us, and no one would come to our rescue.

The words of the possuk, משומו אל, are thus interpreted to mean not, “Their decree” (as we translated above), but “Those given the name of God.”  The nation of Yishmael is granted the Name of God in their own.  Therefore, their fearsome might is so great.





The Torah calls Yishmael a פרא אדם – a “savage man,” as the possuk states, “He will be a savage man.  His hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him.”[3]  Yishmael is a nation of pure savagery.  He knows no mercy.  He thrives on death and destruction, and rejoices to hear the cries of the oppressed.

Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin zt”l noted that in Lashon HaKodesh, the noun generally appears before the adjective.  For example, איש נבון – a man who is wise;[4] אדם רע – a man who is wicked.[5]  Yishmael was not called אדם פרא – a man who is savage.  He was called פרא אדם, implying that פרא is the noun, and אדם is the adjective.  He is not just a savage man.  He is savagery itself, incarnated in the form of a man.

The Chafetz Chaim once said that since the Torah is eternal, if the Torah tells us that Yishmael is a savage, this means that he will remain true to his savage essence forever.  Even if all the nations of the world would convene to try to refine him with the laws of normal social behavior, they would fail dismally.  He is a savage at heart, and can never be refined.  The Chafetz Chaim then groaned and said, “Who knows what cruelty those savages will inflict on Bnei Yisroel in the end of days?”

These words have since been engraved in blood and fire, on the pages of our nation’s history.




However, the Midrash points to another symbolism of the name “Yishmael.”  It also means “Hashem will hear.”  The Midrash states:


ויאמר לה מלאך ה' הנך הרה ויולדת בן וקראת שמו ישמעאל.  שעתיד הקדוש ברוך הוא לשמוע בנאקת העם ממה שעתידין בני ישמעאל לעשות באחרית הימים.


“And the angel of Hashem said to her, ‘You will conceive and bear a son, and you will call him Yishmael.’”[6]  [He was called Yishmael, since] HaKadosh Baruch Hu is destined to hear His nation’s cries, over the suffering the sons of Yishmael will inflict upon them in the end of days. [7]


Hashem will hear the cries of Bnei Yisroel, and avenge us of the injustices that Yishmael perpetrates in this final era.  He did not place His Name upon Yishmael to show that He is their patron or benefactor.  Rather, He placed His Name upon them for the benefit of Bnei Yisroel, to show that He will answer our prayers, lift us up from the pit of our oppression, and punish all those who have harmed us.

The Midrash here uses the word נאקה, referring to the tearful prayers we pour out to Hashem, due to the pain Yishmael causes us.  The Be’er Mayim Chaim, in his sefer Shaarei Tefilla, writes that נאקה is one of the ten expressions of prayer.  When a person is so engulfed by suffering that he finds no words to express his sorrow, he calls out to Hashem with a wordless cry.  This is a very high and exalted form of prayer.  The tears that Yishmael causes us to shed are a true form of נאקה.

Although we are unable to articulate our prayers, Hashem knows our sorrow and will answer us with mercy.





The Gemara offers another, more heartening interpretation of Bilam’s prophecy, אוי מי יחיה משמו אל :


אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש אוי מי שמחיה עצמו בשם אל. אמר רבי יוחנן אוי לה לאומה שתמצא בשעה שהקדוש ברוך הוא עושה פדיון לבניו.  מי מטיל כסותו בין לביא ללביאה בשעה שנזקקין זה עם זה.



Reish Lakish explained, “Woe to those who enliven themselves with the name of Keil.”  Rebbe Yochanan explained, “Woe to the nation that dares to interfere, when Hashem comes to redeem His children.  Such a nation can be compared to a person who stands between the lion and the lioness when they court.”[8]


From the depths of our Golus, when unspeakable suffering has overcome us, we raise our hearts in faithful prayer to Hashem, making our voice heard in Heaven, that Hashem may soon redeem us from our hardships.  May Klal Yisroel soon be redeemed, and the voice of joy and gladness alone will be heard forever more.




The Promise of Protection

Among the berachos that Bilam blessed Bnei Yisroel, we find the possuk:

"כרע שכב כארי וכלביא מי יקימנו."

“They crouch and lie down like a lion; and like a lioness, who could disturb them?”[9]

Our Sages considered including this parsha in the recitation of Shema, but they decided not to do so, since an overly lengthy Shema would inconvenience the congregation.[10]  Rashi explains that this possuk is appropriate to Shema, since it implies that Hashem guards us as we retire and as we wake, allowing us to rest without fear like mighty lions.

This explanation warrants further examination, since the central theme of Shema is not Hashem’s protection.  Rather, the central theme of Shema is our acceptance of Hashem’s sovereignty, and our commitment to fulfill His will.

It seems that these two points are interdependent.  To the degree that we fulfill our obligations towards Hashem, accepting His sovereignty upon ourselves, we are assured that He will protect us, and fulfill on our behalf the possuk, “They crouch and lie down like a lion; and like a lioness, who could disturb them?”

The Midrash states:

הן עם כלביא יקום אין אומה בעולם כיוצא בהם הרי הן ישנים מן התורה ומן המצות ועומדין משנתן כאריות וחוטפין קריאת שמע וממליכין להקב"ה ... כשהוא אומר ה' אחד נאכלין המחבלין מפניו ומלחשין אחריו ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד.

“Behold, a nation like a lion will arise.”  The Jewish people are unlike any other nation.  When they sleep, they pause from their Torah and mitzvos.  Then they rise from their slumber like lions, and “pounce” upon the recitation of Shema, crowning HaKadosh Baruch Hu as King… When they say “Hashem is One,” the destructive forces are consumed.  Then, they whisper, “Blessed is the Name of the Honor of His Kingship, for all eternity.”[11]

We see from here that in the merit of reciting Shema and crowning Hashem as King, all those would harm us are destroyed.  We thus merit to rest as securely as lions.


The relevance of Hashem’s protection to the recitation of Shema can also be understood in light of the fact that Balak, who hired Bilam, was the greatest sorcerer of his era, as our Sages tell us.  Whereas Balak was proficient in general sorcery, Bilam was proficient in the power to curse.  With their combined powers, they hoped to overcome Bnei Yisroel, and wipe our nation off the face of the earth.

The best defense against sorcery and all other forces of darkness, is to recognize the Oneness of Hashem and cleave to Him.  The Gemara tells the story of a certain witch who sought to harm Rebbe Chanina.  As a component for her spells, she took some earth from beneath Rebbe Chanina’s feet.  “Take it if you wish,” he told her.  “You cannot harm me.  ‘Ein ode milvado’ – There is no power in all existence, other than Hashem’s will.”[12]

Rav Chaim of Volozhin writes in Nefesh HaChaim:

ובאמת הוא ענין גדול וסגולה נפלאה להסר ולבטל מעליו כל דינין ורצונות אחרים שלא יוכלו לשלוט בו ולא יעשו שם רושם כלל. כשהאדם קובע בלבו לאמר הלא ה' הוא האלקים האמתי ואין עוד מלבדו יתברך שום כח בעולם וכל העולמות כלל והכל מלא רק אחדותו הפשוט ית"ש. ומבטל בלבו ביטול גמור ואינו משגיח כלל על שום כח ורצון בעולם. ומשעבד ומדבק טוהר מחשבתו רק לאדון יחיד ב"ה. כן יספיק הוא יתב' בידו שממילא יתבטלו מעליו כל הכחות והרצונות שבעולם שלא יוכלו לפעול לו שם דבר כלל.

There is a great and wondrous segula to ward off harsh judgments and foil the plans of one’s opponents, denying them the power to cause harm.  When a person acknowledges in his heart that Hashem is the True Master, besides Whom there is no power in existence, and all the worlds are filled with nothing but His simple blessed Oneness; when he utterly dismisses all other forces and designs, and pays them no heed at all; when he subjugates and binds his purest thoughts only to the One Blessed Lord; Hashem will cause all those who would harm him to fade away, rendering them entirely unable to affect him.[13]

When a person rises in the morning and goes to sleep at night with the recital of Shema, the recognition that Hashem is One, and the firm belief that there is no other power in all creation that could possibly help or harm him - then the curses of Bilam are transformed into blessings, as the possuk states, “Hashem, your God, will transform the curse into blessing, for Hashem, your God, loves you.”[14]

Rebbe Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin zt”l writes that there is a deep message in the mitzva to recite Shema “when you lie down and when you rise up.”[15]  “When you lie down” refers literally to when we go to sleep at night.  However, it also refers figuratively to the times in which the spiritual status of our nation descends into the dark night of Golus.  Nevertheless, we remain loyal to Hashem, unifying His Holy Name.  “When you rise up” refers to the era of our nation’s glory, when we dwell securely in our land, and serve Hashem as befitting the lofty spiritual heights that are our heritage.  This too is hinted at in the possuk, “They crouch and lie down like a lion; and like a lioness, who could disturb them (literally, יקימנו ‘raise them up’)?”

The Sefas Emes writes that this, and all Bilam’s blessings, stand on our behalf for all eternity.  Even in the dark, woebegone and benighted generation in which we live, Klal Yisroel remains devoted to Hashem.  We accept His sovereignty upon ourselves, and in this merit He will guard us forever.

May it be His will, that He may guard us when we lie down and when we rise up.  May we dwell in peace and security, like mighty lions, with no fear of any enemy.

[1] Bamidbar 24:23

[2] Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer, ch. 30

[3] Bereishis 16:12

[4] Bereishis 41:33

[5] Tehillim 140:2

[6] Bereishis 16:11

[7] Yalkut Shimoni, Melachim I, 200

[8] Sanhedrin 106a

[9] Bamidbar 24:9

[10] Berachos 12b

[11] Bamidbar Rabba, 20

[12] Chullin 7b.

[13] Nefesh HaChaim 3:12

[14] Devarim 23:6.  See Minchas Asher: Haggadah shel Pesach (Hebrew version p. 400/ English version p. 302).

[15] Devarim 6:7