Who was the mystery person that was listening from the background when the angels visited Avraham and Sara to proclaim that they would be having a child? The Torah describes Avraham sitting with the angels that were disguised as wayfarers and Sara in the tent. When the angels deliver their prophetic message, it mentions that Sara was listening through the tent entrance, and then it also cryptically refers to someone standing behind the tent – but without identifying that person. Targum Yerushalmi writes that the person standing behind the tent was Yishmael and he was the one that heard the words of the angels. But this interpretation raises a question. If the Torah is referring to Yishmael, what significance does it have that he heard this prophesy? Why does it matter?
Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman (born 1912), the prominent elder Israeli Rosh Yeshiva and author, suggests that the significance of Yishmael’s inclusion in this episode may be to relate something of significance regarding Yishmael himself – that he too was enabled to hear the angels speech. Apparently, when angels supernaturally appear, not all people are necessarily privy to all of their messages and communications. The ability to receive or hear the angels may be dependent on a person’s moral or spiritual character or, perhaps, some type of special merit. Regarding this particular episode, the Torah alludes to the fact that Yishmael was deemed worthy of this experience in this instance.
The Almighty transmits many messages, using many different messengers; our eyes and ears aren’t always sensitized to detect them. Some are reminders to awaken and appreciate all of the good fortune that we constantly enjoy. Others may encourage us to improve ourselves or to face up to ways that we’ve failed, and yet others may attempt to teach us how to recognize particular strengths and talents that we already possess. Our challenge is to habituate ourselves to live mindfully and think about our lives, relationships, and circumstances in a way that will help us hear the lessons that they are meant to impart.