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    The second son – Chayyei Sarah

    Isaac & Ishmael bury Abraham, from the 1728 Figures de la Bible

    Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, is far from being regarded as a tzaddik by our rabbinic tradition. Isaac is the favourite son, and it is through him that Abraham’s teachings are to be maintained (Gen. 21:12).

    Abraham tried to bring up Ishmael properly but the boy remained a pereh adam, rough and ready, and became a skilled archer; his ways were such that God warned the patriarch, according to the sages, that this son would cause suffering to his brother (Gen. R. 45:11).

    Ishmael married a wife of whom Abraham disapproved, but eventually he understood his father’s views, sent this wife away and married another woman of better character. This and other facts which the rabbis read into the story led to the conclusion that Ishmael was on the way to becoming a ba’al t’shuvah, a penitent. The Talmud says that so genuine was the son’s penitence that he returned to Canaan and lived with his father (Bava Batra 16a).

    When Abraham died, the Torah says, “And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him” (Gen. 20:9). Superficially, of course, this verse suggests co-operation between the sons, but there is more to it than that. Look at the order in which the sons are named, Isaac before Ishmael. Isaac was in fact the younger son, and in the days when both were young Ishmael taunted Isaac, according to the rabbis, insisting that as he was older he was more important and it was he who would inherit most of their father’s possessions (Gen. R. 53:15).

    What had now happened was that the aggressiveness had gone out of Ishmael and he no longer had a need to push himself forward and aggrandise his own status. In letting Isaac go first and recognising that this was God’s wish, Ishmael showed he had learned derech eretz and reverence for God. This must surely be seen as a sign of t’shuvah.

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