By Rabbi Evan Krame
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1 – 25:18.
The press analyzed every body movement as the two brothers walked behind their grandfather’s casket. William and Harry had not spoken for more than a year. Perhaps the world hoped that these royal siblings would end their estrangement. In a tale reminiscent of a biblical story, we had the opportunity to watch them and perhaps reexamine our own opportunities for reconciliation and growth.
The death of the Duke of Edinburgh in 2021 was a chance for Harry and William to reunite. In Torah, we read a similar story about the funeral of Abraham, attended by his oldest and scorned son Ishmael and his younger, favored son Isaac. Torah, being less investigatory than the British press, offers nearly no details of the reunion.
Presumably, Ishmael and Isaac had not been together since Abraham gave Hagar a skin of water and sent Ishmael into the wilderness. Sarah had demanded Ishmael’s dismissal. God backed Sarah on that deal. Isaac was to be the next progenitor of the Jewish people.
Ishmael’s crude ways and tainted pedigree were incompatible with the future Jewish ethos.
Some 35 years passed from Ishmael’s expulsion to the reunion. Ishmael and Isaac stood together, peacefully, before their father’s interment. Subsequently, there were no other sightings of Ishmael and Isaac together.
Our tradition has not been kind to Ishmael. The great Torah commentator Rashi describes Ishmael as a highwayman. The rabbinic imagination has historically been harsh even to Ishmael’s descendants, described in Torah as demons of the outhouse (Kiddushin 72a:10).
Some commentators wondered if Ishmael arrived to collect an inheritance. If Ishmael was so motivated, he was disappointed to find that Isaac was the sole inheritor of Abraham’s wealth. We can imagine the conversation: Ishmael laying claim to the estate as the first born, while Isaac responds with his superior position by virtue of being Sarah’s, and not a slave woman’s, son. Ishmael might also have reminded Isaac that they are both sons of the covenant, Ishmael having been painfully circumcised at age 13, while Isaac was an unaware 8 day old when circumcised. Sadly for Ishmael, circumcision conveys no rights of inheritance.
Alternatively, Ishmael’s reappearance at this funeral reasserts his claim to the land of Canaan promised to all of the descendants of Abraham. The rabbis try to jettison that claim stating that we are B’nai Israel. The children of Jacob are the sole inheritors of that land. In fact, Ishmael and his descendants were not sedentary home bodies. As seen later in Torah, Joseph’s brothers sold him to a caravan of Ishmaelites, beginning Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt.
Perhaps Ishmael’s banishment was precisely because Ishmael had not inherited Abraham’s good character. Greed could be a motivating factor for his return upon Abraham’s death. Yet, as the son of an enslaved woman, Ishmael would have had no reasonable expectation of inheriting. His return appears to be purely gratuitous and born of a sense of obligation.
The expansiveness of time allows for kinder interpretations by us as modern commentators. Doesn’t Ishmael demonstrate good character by rejoining his brother to honor their father? The death of a parent or righteous person typically brings people together, even if temporarily. Ishmael shows character when he set aside anger for a greater purpose of honoring his father.
Just as Harry’s appearance at his grandfather’s funeral represented only a fleeting reunion, so, too, Ishmael’s attendance at Abraham’s funeral appears to have been ephemeral. Yet, there are lessons to be learned. Whatever Ishmael’s wild nature might have been, he was present when needed and attentive to familial obligation. If he harbors anger at his rejection and expulsion, he manages those negative emotions sufficiently to stand shoulder to shoulder with his brother, Isaac.
Rabbi Evan Krame is rabbi of The Jewish Studio.