Children can teach us so much!

We always think that we have so much to teach future generations. Parents, teachers, clergy, and adults in general assume that we know so much and that children have a lot to learn from us. After all, we have life experiences that we can share with them as they begin their own personal journeys. Yet, experiencing life and sharing those experiences isn’t always a positive. With all that we have experienced, it is hard for us to be objective. We have all experienced joy, but we have also experienced pain, heartache, and loss. Those experiences cloud our vision. We hold grudges. We make assumptions. We don’t give someone the benefit of the doubt.

Our children on the other hand have not dealt with such experiences. Their youth and innocence allows them to keep an open mind and truly be objective. They don’t make assumptions on an individual because of his family, ethnicity, or religious beliefs. They don’t assume that just because one did something or said something in the past, one’s future is already decided. All young children are concerned with is playing with their friends, and being openminded allows them to make friends with anyone. 

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Vayera. In this Torah portion, Sarah casts out Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son, and Hagar, Ishmael’s mother. Genesis 21:9 reveals that Sarah saw Ishmael playing. The Hebrew word for playing is this verse is metzahek, the same root as the name Yitzhak, or Isaac. It is widely assumed that Sarah saw Ishmael playing with Isaac. In the next verse, Sarah casts them out, announcing that Hagar and Ishmael must leave because her son, Isaac, must be Abraham’s heir. Sarah ultimately casts out Ishmael and Hagar out of jealously.

The rabbis are so uncomfortable with this action and the fact that the p’shat, the literal meaning of the text, does not give any such reason for Sarah to send Hagar and Ishmael away that they attempt to offer their own explanations. Using examples of this word found elsewhere in biblical literature, our commentators suggest that Ishmael was not “playing” with Isaac. Some say he was encouraging him to participate in idol worship. Others suggest that he was trying to kill Isaac. There are those that even suggest that Ishmael was sexually assaulting Isaac. Regardless of the explanation, it is clear that our commentators are uncomfortable with Sarah’s actions, with her pain, heartache, and jealously, that they need to “rewrite” the text. I am not concerned with their interpretations. I am interested in the literal meaning of the text: Ishmael and Isaac were playing together.

Sarah was jealous of Hagar, and I would imagine that Hagar was jealous of Sarah. These women did not like each other and fought for Abraham’s love and attention. Yet, their sons enjoyed each other’s companionship. Isaac and Ishmael, the fathers of two great nations that have spent thousands of years fighting, were playing with each other! We may think that peace between these two nations is impossible, but Genesis 21:9 is a reminder of how easily peace can be achieved. Despite the past, despite loss, pain, heartache, and even hatred towards another, we are reminded that these two nations are siblings. Instead of fighting with our brothers and sisters, we should just simply sit down as Isaac and Ishmael did and play together.

Ultimately, adults may not be the ones to achieve peace. We have made up our minds already. Unfortunately, it is not as easy for us to “play” together. Yet our children are the future. I pray that they, in their innocence, will be able to sit down and play together, just as Isaac and Ishmael did. They can certainly teach us something about how to live our lives. After all, while ever teacher has something to teach his students, every student also has something to teach his teacher.

-Rabbi Jesse Olitzky

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