Avraham & Yishmael: When Duty and Family Come into Conflict
by Bracha Rutner
Bracha Rutner learned in Midreshet Lindenbaum during the years 1994-95 and 1995-96. She was the first congregational Yoetzet in the United States and is the Head of School at Yeshiva University High School for Girls/Central.
There is a dramatic pasuk, Breishit 25:9, at this conclusion of Parshat Chaya Sarah. וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ יִצְחָק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל בָּנָיו אֶל מְעָרַת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה – Yitzchak and Yishmael, Avraham’s sons, bury him in Maarat Hamacheplah. Why does the Torah tell us that both of them buried their father?
Shortly before the Torah tells us of Avraham’s death and burial, we learn that Avraham married Ketura and had several sons with her. Avraham then sends Yishmael and all his other sons away. So, why is it that only Yishmael returns home to bury his father and perform the mitzvah known as חסד של אמת – a true kindness that cannot be repaid?
We do not hear much about the relationship between Avraham and Yishmael but the little we do is challenging. Avraham and Sarah are old and they do not have a child. Worried about the future, Sarah marries her handmaid Hagar with Avraham, and Hagar conceives immediately. The relationship between Sarah and Hagar sours and Hagar runs away. Eventually, she returns home, on the prodding and promise of great things for her son by an angel, and gives birth to a son. Who names this son? Avraham. This is in contrast to Rachel and Leah who name their own sons. Yishmael, who should have been welcomed with excitement by Sarah is instead ignored by her. Despite Sarah’s lack of a connection with Yishmael, Avraham shows great care and concern for him.
As Yishmael grows up in the house of Avraham, Avraham is told he will have another son, Yitzchak, who will be his true descendant. Immediately Avraham is concerned about Yishmael – what will happen to him? According to the midrash, Avraham did not want Yishmael to be replaced. Clearly there was something that Avraham understood within the character of Yishmael, he clearly loves him and anticipates that he could be his true heir. As soon as he is given the commandment regarding the brit milah, Avraham circumcises Yishmael and in those pesukim Yishmael is referred to twice as בניו – his son. In this way, he shows that he loves his son and wants him to participate in fulfilling God’s commands.
Then Yitzchak is born. Sarah grows concerned about Yishmael’s behavior. There is a debate amongst the meforshim as to what she notices – is Yishmael practicing Avodah Zarah? That is difficult given that he grew up in Avraham’s house. Is she worried that Yishmael views himself as the eldest and thinks he will inherit double? Or is it more simply that she doesn’t want anything to threaten Yitzchak’s place in the home? Perhaps Sarah sees something in the close relationship that has developed between Avraham and Yishmael. Sarah is so upset that she tells Avraham that he must send Yishmael away. This is viewed by Avraham as very bad – רע בעיניו. He loves his son and does not want to send him away. Hashem says that he must heed Sarah’s words but assures Avraham that Yishmael will become a great nation. Avraham sends Yishmael away, even getting up early in the morning to send him off. At this point though, Yishmael is referred to as הילד – the boy. This may be Avraham’s reluctant acceptance that Yishmael will not be his chosen son.
In Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 30 we learn that Avraham does not abandon Yishmael totally. When Yishmael is grown, Avraham visits him and he encounters Yishmael’s wife, who treats him poorly. Avraham leaves a message that Yishmael’s house is broken. Yishmael divorces his wife and remarries. A few years later, Avraham returns to visit Yishmael and meets his new wife. She treats Avraham with the utmost kindness and he leaves her a message that Yishmael’s house is in order. Yishmael knew that his father still loved him.
This is why Yishmael returned to bury Avraham. Yishmael and Yitzchak were loved by their father, who believed in both of them. His other children may have been loved, but were not a true part of Avraham’s legacy. They did not bury Avraham. But Yishmael and Yitzchak did. Yishmael did recognize his place – that Yitzchak was the chosen son. And so Yitzchak’s name is mentioned first. According to the Talmud in Babba Batra 16B, when Yishmael buried Avraham he did “teshuva”. This can mean he repented or that he returned to his origins. With Yitzchak married and the next generation seemingly guaranteed, it was safe for Yishmael to return home to fulfill his duty to the father whom he loved and who loved him.
Avraham loved Yishmael but he understood his responsibility to raise his true heir, Yitzchak. And that these two children could not grow up in the same household. This duty did not prevent him from loving his son, only from living in the same household. Their bond was strong and remained so until the end of Avraham’s life. Avraham never gave up on Yishmael – he always knew that he would amount to greatness.
Sefer Breishit provides us with models for different types of familial relationships and shows us that, ultimately, the love of family, of a father and a son, is a bond that cannot be broken. There may be situations that require sacrifice and circumstances that place a strain on family relationships. That is often part of life. Despite distance and duty, love for each other can hold us together.