Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch defines “pere adam” as “a free man…the freest man in the world.” What does that mean? Yishmael is “free from the human yoke and from the constraint of cities [i.e. civilized standards of behavior], hence [the freedom] of wild animals that cannot bear the constraint of cities…a race of men who do not bow their necks to the yoke of other men…. Nobody will be his friend and still nobody will dare to oppose him” (Bereishis 16:12).
The pere adam refuses to abide by the standards that bind other people into cohesive societies. Thus we see his descendants slaughtering their own people without mercy, blowing themselves up in the midst of crowds and flying airplanes into skyscrapers.
Rabbi Mandelbaum continues, “We should not be fooled into thinking the ‘pere’ is a superficial trait; it is at the root of [Yishmael’s] character….” The Chofetz Chaim is quoted as saying, “Even if the cultured nations of the world attempt to make him into a restrained character, they cannot succeed, because he is in essence unrestrained.”
But Rabbi Mandelbaum advises us that “to the extent that we distance ourselves from Yishmael’s ways, we will be spared from his evil clutches.” If we are being oppressed by Yishmael, then we should study his character traits to understand what we are doing wrong.
So let’s try to learn. If the concept of “pere adam” is that Yishmael wants to be free from the constraints that bind people together, isn’t that what sinas chinam is all about? Isn’t that what our Sages taught us is the cause of this torturous Exile?
When we see Yishmael killing his own people, we have to understand that we, the nation of “rachmanim b’nei rachmanim,” are doing the same thing to each other. It may not be so obvious as the headline-grabbing mayhem of the children of Yishmael, but this entire concept of learning from our enemies is a hidden concept. We are supposed to study the world and learn just what inadequacies in our own behavior are causing our suffering.
“There are three identifying marks of this [Jewish] nation: they are merciful, bashful and they do acts of kindness” (Yevamos 79a). We must ask ourselves whether we are living according to our essential nature. Do we not kick and snort and attempt to free ourselves from our Torah obligations? As we read recently in Haftaras Devarim, “An ox knows his owner, and a donkey his master’s trough; Israel does not know; My people does not perceive.”
Several weeks ago we read in the Torah that, in relation to “our brothers the children of Eisav…you shall not provoke them” (Devarim 2:5). One possible explanation as to why we are adjured not to “provoke” him, despite his cruelty to us, is that provocation does not solve our problem.
If in fact all our troubles are due to our own deficiencies that are mirrored by the behavior of our enemies, then there is no point in provoking our enemies. The end of our troubles will only occur when we learn from their behavior to correct our own behavior.
Chodesh Elul is dedicated to preparing for the Great Bechinah, the Great Test, which is coming upon us. It is not just Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that loom upon the horizon, but it is the mighty upheaval called the Geulah Shelemah, the Final Redemption. We do not know precisely the moment of its coming, but it is clearly not far off.
We have much to accomplish in the coming days. But God has given us a very clear mirror in which we can see reflected exactly the nature of our challenge. May we draw the right conclusions from what we observe in the world. May we refine ourselves and become the Holy Nation and Priestly Kingdom we were created to be. In the words of Kiddush Levanah, “May the light of the moon be like the light of the sun and like the light of the seven days of creation…and may there be fulfilled upon us the verse that is written, ‘They shall seek Hashem, their God and David, their king’ – Amen!”