At the end of our Parashah, Avraham Avinu passes away and is buried by his two sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael (BeReishit 25:9). Although Yishmael was exiled to Midbar Paran in Parashat VaYeira)21:20(, he returns to Eretz Yisrael for Avraham’s burial. According to the syntax of the Pasuk (25:9), it seems that Yitzchak, not Yishmael, is given the main role in burying Avraham. Chezkuni (ad loc. s.v. Yitzchak VeYishmael) comments that the Torah makes mention of Yitzchak before Yishmael because Yitzchak is the son of Sarah, whereas Yishmael is the son of Hagar, a maidservant. However, Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Yitzchak VeYishmael) cites a Midrash (quoted in Bava Batra 16b) which states that Yishmael did Teshuvah prior to Avraham’s death, and he assumes that the Teshuvah that the Midrash is speaking about is Yishmael allowing Yitzchak to walk before him. Why does the Midrash assume that Yishmael’s Teshuvah is effected by Yishmael letting Yitzchak walk first? This question becomes even stronger if one considers other meritorious deeds Yishmael did. For example, in reference to Yishmael’s marriage to an Egyptian (Breishit 21:21), Chezkuni (ad loc.) quotes a Midrash (Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer 29) which records the following incident: Yishmael had originally married a woman from Mo’av. Three years after their parting, Avraham traveled to Yishmael’s residence to see how he was doing. Only Yishmael’s wife was home at the time, and when Avraham asked for some bread and water, she said that they had none, thus showing her lack of care for others. Consequently, Avraham told her to tell Yishmael that the “threshold of his house is not good for him,” a reference about his wife that only Yishmael would understand. Upon hearing the message from his wife when he returned home later that day, Yishmael divorced his wife without hesitation. Three years later, after Yishmael had remarried, Avraham visited once again and repeated the same test, but this time, Yishmael’s wife provides bread and water for him. Subsequently, Avraham blessed Yishmael and his household. From this story, it is clear that despite being sent into the desert by Avraham, Yishmael´s respect, fear, and trust in Avraham were indeed extraordinary. So why was this action not chosen to show Yishmael’s Teshuvah? In what way was letting Yitzchak go in front of him, a seemingly minor deed, more significant than changing his entire family based on Avraham’s perception?
Rabbeinu Bachya (25:9 s.v. VaYikberu Oto Yitzchak VeYishmael Banav) develops a thought that teaches us the meaning of authentic Teshuvah. He explains that Yishmael’s act of allowing his younger brother to go first was special because he was not accustomed to doing this; all of his life, Yishmael had put Yitzchak under him and acted as though he himself was the Bechor and Yitzchak was not. This is apparent in his original sin to Yitzchak. The Pasuk states that after Yitzchak was born, Sarah saw that Yishamel, the son of Hagar the Mitzrit, was mocking Yitzchak (21:9). According to Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Metzacheik), this means that Yishmael, angry at the attention Yitzchak was receiving as the “chosen one,” would jokingly shoot arrows at Yitzchak, secretly intending to kill him. Thus, when Yishmael humbled himself to allow Yitzchak to pass before him, he recognized Yitzchak’s right as the Bechor and corrected his original sin. This shows us that to be considered a proper Ba’al Teshuvah, one must change himself particularly in those challenging areas with which he struggles and not merely perform Mitzvot that are easy for him. At the end of the day, the Torah attests to Yishmael’s Teshuvah by describing his death with the same word it uses for Tzaddikim (see Rashi 25:17).
However, this leads us to another question: if the honor of going first to bury Avraham was so treasured by Yishmael, why did Yitzchak accept Yishmael’s honor? In a similar story where Yitzchak passes away and his two sons, Ya’akov and Esav, who disagree over the birthright, carry him to be buried (35:29), Ya’akov permits Esav to go ahead in carrying Yitzchak, despite Ya’akov being the rightful Bechor. Why does Yitzchak not do same?
Yitzchak’s reaction, if understood correctly, teaches us a clear insight into Mitzvot Ben Adam LeChaveiro. If Yitzchak had refused to accept Yishmael’s offer, then Yishmael, after mustering up the courage to finally lower himself for his brother’s honor, would have been left heartbroken and dejected. Even though Yishmael would have received the honor he deeply desired, he would have been robbed of the chance to make up for his previous shortcomings. By accepting his act of kindness and Teshuvah, Yitzchak was enabling Yishmael to grow as a person. Had he not allowed Yishmael to give him the honor of going first, Yitzchak may have stunted the growth and Teshuvah of Yishmael.