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In bereshis 21:17 it says

And God heard the lad's voice, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, "What is troubling you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the lad's voice in the place where he is.

Which the gemarah, Rosh HaShanah 16b, says teaches us that

A person is judged only based on his deeds of that moment, as it is written, ‘G-d has heard the voice of the youth [Yishmael], as he is there.

Rashi, quoting the midrash rabba fills in

For the ministering angels were accusing and saying,“ O Lord of the Universe, for one who is destined to kill Your children with thirst, You are bringing up a well?!” And He answered them, “What is he now, righteous or wicked?” They replied, “Righteous.” He said to them, “According to his present deeds I judge him” (Gen. Rabbah 53:14)

But was Yishmael righteous? 8 Pesukim earlier we find

וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת בֶּן הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם מְצַחֵק Which Rashi, from the midrash, explains as making merry: Heb. מְצַחֵק. An expression of idolatry, as it is said (Exod. 32:6):“and they rose up to make merry” (לְצַחֵק) . Another explanation: An expression of illicit sexual relations, as it is said (below 39:17):“to mock (לְצַחֶק) me.” Another explanation: An expression of murder, as it is said (II Sam. 2:14):“Let the boys get up now and sport (וַיִשַׂחֲקוּ) before us, etc.” - [from Gen. Rabbah 53:11]

So Yishmael engaged in at least one and possible all three of the cardinal sins, which are also capital offenses for a Ben Noach.

Why then is he dubbed "righteous" and not put to death?

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related: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/9903/… –  Menachem Sep 11 '13 at 15:12
    
I heard two alternative explanations of מְצַחֵק. The first is that he was joking that Isaac was really the son of Abimelech from when Sarah was abducted in Philistia. The second is that מְצַחֵק is the verb form of Isaac. Yishmael was Isaacing, usurping Isaac's position as Abrahams's promised son. –  Clint Eastwood Dec 26 '13 at 4:46
    
@ClintEastwood Cool! Do you know where you heard the latter explanation? –  Double AA Dec 26 '13 at 6:07
    
Sorry, I don't. –  Clint Eastwood Dec 26 '13 at 19:07
    

4 Answers 4

I found two possible answers that are at odds with one another:

1. We know Ishmael repented in the lifetime of Abraham, since he allowed Isaac to precede him for Abraham's burial, (Gen 25:9, see also B. Bath. 16b). Pirkei D'Rebbi Eliezer, ch. 30 relates the following, which could suggest that his repentance happened in the desert:

"In the merit of Abraham, the water skin did not lack water. And when she, (Hagar), reached the desert, she began to stray after the idols of her father's house, and immediately the water was missing from the water skin, therefore she cast the lad. And 24 Years was Ishmael when he left the house of Abraham and Isaac was 10... And the soul of Ishmael became tired from thirst, he went and cast him self beneath the thorns of the desert and said Master of the world, if there is before you a will to give me to drink water, give me to drink so that my spirit will not leave me in thirst, for strange is death from thirst, and it is more difficult than all deaths. And Gd heard his prayer..."

Further in the chapter, Ishmael is said to divorce his first wife for not offering an anonymous Abraham food and water when he comes to visit his son, which suggests that in the very least he was hospitable after this repentance and its acceptance by Gd.

2. Ishmael was wicked or guilty, but was not of punishable age. Above, he is listed as 24, but in the Zohar part 1, 118b:

"See, they preserved him/established it, (aramaic word אוקמוה‏), that he was not of punishable age by the Upper Court, because the Lower Court punishes from thirteen years and up, and the Upper Court from twenty years and onward, and even though he was wicked/guilty, (aramaic word חייבא‏), he was not of punishable age, and see they preserved him/established it, and that is what is written 'as he is there', (Gen 21:17)".

So in the Upper Court, where Ishmael was being judged, his wicked deeds did not lead to his guilt or punishment, because he was less than twenty years old, which was not old enough to be held responsible.

Also, the Targum [pseudo] Jonathan on Gen 21:17 says that Gd spared Ishmael because of the merit of Abraham.

So, he was "righteous" for one of three reasons:

  • He repented.
  • He was not of punishable age so his sins were not counted against him.
  • His father's merit was invoked on his behalf.
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The angels say he is righteous, how can he be wicked? –  avi Dec 31 '13 at 10:07
    
I have edited in an attempt to address your point. –  Baby Seal Dec 31 '13 at 21:12

I read once from a reliable source (forgot where) "he was righteous" means in a relative sense, i.e. regarding this particular judgment that he was being judged in of whether he should die or not - but not that he was righteous in a general sense.

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The answer is in your question:

A person is judged only based on his deeds of that moment, as it is written, ‘G-d has heard the voice of the youth [Yishmael], as he is there.

For the ministering angels were accusing and saying,“ O Lord of the Universe, for one who is destined to kill Your children with thirst, You are bringing up a well?!” And He answered them, “What is he now, righteous or wicked?” They replied, “Righteous.” He said to them, “According to his present deeds I judge him” (Gen. Rabbah 53:14)

Yishmael's past and future deeds were not relevant to his judgement. That is the meaning of the extra words

"in the place where he is."

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I think that mentioning what his 'deeds of the moment' were in your mind, (repentance?) would make your answer more clear. –  Baby Seal Feb 7 at 7:06

He was saved and also his descendants because he made a bris at thirteen. To be able to be paid back in this world.

The same as Eisav was saved and his descendants for honoring his father.

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Comments are not for weak answers. If you had provided some investigative path (e.g. suggesting a source or a line of inquiry), that would be something for a comment. But this is not really a comment and very weak as an answer. Generally it's better to hold off until you can provide a more-fully-baked answer. The question will still be here later when you're ready to provide sources. –  Monica Cellio Sep 11 '13 at 21:38

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