Imagine the scene at the funeral of Avraham. Everyone is there. The room is full. There is an overflow crowd stretching out the door as thousands of people have come to pay their last respects to the individual whose new way of thinking about God had revolutionized the world.
Avraham’s son Yitzhak gets up to speak. He looks out over the huge crowd and there, standing in the back, he sees his long lost half-brother Yishmael, probably wearing sunglasses, maybe even an earring, probably sporting a few tattoos, with an idling motorcycle parked out front. Yitzhak calls Yishmael forward and together they engage in the burial of their father, as the Torah relates, “Yitzhak and Yishmael his sons buried him” (Bereshit 25:9).
At the beginning of Chapter 25 in Bereshit, Yishmael shows up at Avraham’s funeral; in the keriyat ha-Torah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah (Chapter 21) Yishmael is expelled from his father’s house in response to a request by Sarah prompted by her concern that his presence there would be threatening to her son Yitzhak. In spite of his deep discomfort, Avraham responds to God’s command that he submit to the demand of his wife. At this point, Yishmael disappears, only to reappear in the biblical text four chapters later at the funeral of his father.
What happened to him in between? Where had he been all those years? Remember that when God had told Avraham to sacrifice his son on the altar, the Torah uses the words, “Take your son, your only son, the one you love” (Bereshit 22:2) and Avraham still did not know which son of his God had in mind. (Rashi- “Whom you love,” said Avraham, “I love both of them.”) He loved both of his sons equally! Had there ever been any contact between the pained father and his beloved son all those years? Did Avraham die without ever seeing his son again?
The Torah is silent but the Midrash fills in the gaps. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni #95; Pirkei de-Rabi Eliezer, Chap. 30) states that Avraham never stopped thinking about his first born son, the one whom he loved so dearly, the one whom he banished from his house against his will. “Ratzah lir’ot et Yishmael beno ve-leyda et ha-derekh asher halchu bah, Avraham wanted to see his son Yishmael and know the path which he had followed.”
After three years Avraham went to see Yishmael and swore to Sarah that he would not descend from the camel in the place where Yishmael dwelt. He arrived there at mid-day and found there the wife of Yishmael. He said to her, “Where is Yishmael?” She said to him, “He has gone with his mother to fetch fruits and dates from the wilderness.” He said to her, “Give me a little bread and a little water, for my soul is weary from the journey in the desert.” She said to him, “I have neither bread nor water.” Said he to her, “When Yishmael comes, tell him this story and say to him, ‘Change the threshold of your house for it is not good for you.’” When Yishmael came, she told him the story. A son of a wise man is like half a wise man. Yishmael understood, and sent her away. His mother [then] took for him a wife from her father’s household and her name was Fatima.
Again after three years Avraham went to see Yishmael and swore to Sarah that he would not descend from the camel in the place where Yishmael dwelt. He arrived there at mid-day and found the wife of Yishmael. [The story continues as above, but this time] she took them out and gave them to him. Avraham arose and prayed before the Holy One, Blessed be He, for his son, and the house of Yishmael was filled with all good things, with money and blessings. When Yishmael returned, she told him the story and Yishmael understood that until that moment his [i.e., Avraham’s] mercy extended to him, “as a father has mercy upon his children” (Tehillim 103:13).
This striking Midrash has implications for our lives on three levels: our relationships with the members of our family, our relationship with other Jews and our relationship with God.
A child may grow up and leave home, but parents never stop thinking about their child. We wonder, “What will be with him? What will happen to her? What will be et ha-derekh asher halchu bah?” A child is constantly on his parents’ minds even when the family dynamics are complicated, as they were in the case of Avraham. There was a rift in the family, a split, a breakup. But Avraham did not stand on ceremony. He did not say, “Where is Yishmael? Why is he not in touch? Why is he not calling me?” Rather, he is the one who initiated the contact; he went to seek out his son, as difficult and as complicated as that was. Remember, Sarah was obviously very unhappy with this trip and they were both forced to compromise. Her compromise was that she allowed Avraham to go; his compromise was that he would not get off the camel.
Understand well that not getting off the camel means not only that Avraham could stay for only a short period of time; even more significant, it meant that he could not hug his son!
There are tensions, sometimes, within families, between children and parents and between parents and children; between husbands and wives and between wives and husbands; between brothers and sisters and between sisters and brothers. The relationship may not be now what it once may have been. But the Midrash teaches: Don’t stand on ceremony, get on your donkey and ride out into the desert to re-establish contact. Do not wait until the funeral because we know very well that by then it will be too late.
But this Midrash is not only about the nuclear family; it is about the family of the Jewish people. The Midrash teaches us never to give up on another Jew; never, under any circumstances, to abandon another Jew.
Why was Yishmael banished from the household of Avraham? The Rabbis teach us (Rashi, Bereshit 21:9, s.v. metzachek) that he was guilty of each one of the most heinous of sins, adultery, idolatry and murder! What could be worse! But yet, Avraham was concerned, “ratzah lir’ot et Yishmael beno ve-leyda et ha-derekh asher halchu bah.” We too need to be concerned, we too need to be involved, we too need to care. We are, all of us, members of one people, of one family.
Finally, this Midrash is not only about family, it is not only about the Jewish people; the Midrash is about our relationship with God. With all Yishmael may have been, “Yishmael understood that until that moment his mercy extended to him ‘as a father has mercy upon his children.’” Rabbi David Luria, the author of an important nineteenth commentary on the Pirkei de-Rabi Eliezer, sees this as a metaphor for the nature of the relationship between God (the “father”) and the Jewish people (“his children”). Even though Yishmael did not behave the way he should have (to say the least), even though Yishmael did not act appropriately, nevertheless he knew that his father did not abandon him, that his father had rachmanut for him.
So too is the nature of our relationship with God. We turn to Him and say, “God, You know us well; You know us better than anyone else does; You know our failings, shortcomings and limitations. Nevertheless we ask You, our Father in Heaven, pay us a visit, leave us a blessing, bring good health and above all else in these very troubling times, peace and security for Klal Yisrael and the world at large.”
Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter is University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought and Senior Scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University.
By Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter (Reprinted with permission from YUTorah.org)