At the end of this week’s Parashah, Chayei Sarah, Avraham dies at the age of 175. The Torah says describing the burial, “VaYikberu Oto Yitzchak VeYishma’eil Banav,” “[Avraham’s] sons Yitzchak and Yishmael buried him” (BeReishit 25:9).
Rashi explains that the Torah writes Yitzchak’s name first to reveal that Yishma’eil does Teshuvah by letting Yitzchak go first in the burial process, even though Yishma’eil is the older son.
How could Rashi claim that Yishmael has done full Teshuvah just because of this small act of letting Yitzchak go first? It was just last week’s Parashah where Yishmael was “Metzacheik,” explained by Rashi himself to mean that Yishma’eil broke the three cardinal sins of Judaism: worshipping idols, adultery, and murder. What is so significant about letting Yitzchak go first?
Further adding to the problem is another puzzling question. The Mishna and Gemarot often quote the great Rabi Yishma’eil (ex. Mishna Shabbat 2:2). Why would any parents want to name their child after Yishma’eil? Yishmael not only wasn’t Jewish; he was a Rashah! Rabi Yishma’eil was one of the greatest Rabbis of all time, yet he was named after such a lowly man. What is the reason for all this?
Rav Mordechai Kamenetzky explains that Yishma’eil letting Yitzchak go first is not just a nice gesture, nor is it just to show that Yishma’eil no longer harbors hard feelings for Yitzchak. Avraham Avinu, the greatest man to ever walk the earth at this time, has just died. Avraham was a Ba’al Chesed, always had people staying at his house, and always was involved in Kiruv. He spread monotheism across the world and changed the way humans think. On top of all that, he was a war hero and a great leader. People across the world traveled to this funeral. The whole world is watching this procession.
Not only that, but all of Yishma’eil’s sons and grandsons are present at the funeral. All of his children assume that they are the chosen descendants of Avraham, since Yishma’eil is the oldest and not Yitzchak. They know that they are the future of Avraham.
This is the perfect opportunity for Yishma’eil. He can go into the cave first, showing that he is the true heir to Avraham and that his descendants, not Yitzchak’s descendants, are the chosen people. The whole world would be watching and they would see that Yishma’eil is the real deal and there is no one greater than him.
But Yishma’eil steps back and lets Yitzchak go first. Yishma’eil is telling the whole world, including his own family, that Yitzchak and his descendants, not Yishma’eil and his descendants, are the chosen people. Yishma’eil puts down his own selfishness to show proper respect to Avraham and to his true heir, Yitzchak.
The hardest Middah that a person needs to work on is Ga’avah, having a big ego, and in front of the whole world, Yishma’eil lets it go. With this statement, Yishma’eil, although a huge Rasha early on in life, does Teshuvah. The great Rabi Yishma’eil is named after him because Yishma’eil is the perfect example of someone who improves himself and does full Teshuvah.
It is important to learn from this story that sometimes even though a person may think he deserves something, it is best to let it go and recognize the importance of putting other people first.