Parshas Chayei Sarah
Who's on First
by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
A number of weeks ago, I wrote about Ishmael. Actually, I wrote about his
mother, and the piece was not so kind to her. I received scores of e-mail,
some praising the piece, others railing that it was not strong enough, and
still others decrying it, saying that it bordered on racism.
Today, once again, I am going to write about Ishmael. But before you gird
your loins, let me tell you that I won't speak about the biblical Ishmael,
but rather his namesake, Rabbi Ishmael.
You see, one of the great sages of the Talmud was named Rabbi Ishmael. A
fact that should shock our genteel readers. In fact, the Talmud is filled
with quotes from Rabbi Ishmael. But how did he get such a name? After all,
why would anyone name their child after the "wild-ass of a man whose hand
is against everyone, and everyone's hand is against him" (Genesis
16:11)? Rabbi Yishmael's opinions are from the most significant in the
entire Talmud yet his name is surely not a Rabbinic one? Or perhaps there
is more to Ishmael than we truly know.
The answer is somewhat simple. It is base on two words in the
Torah. "Yitzchak and Yishmael." Let me put them in context. You see, the
Torah tells us "Abraham expired and died at a good old age, mature and
content, and he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael
buried him in the cave of Machpelah. (Genesis 25:8-9)." It seems innocuous
enough. But alas, the Talmud infers something from two words that turn
Ishmael, from the castigated wild-man, to one who is worthy of place in
Jewish history, a Talmudic giant bearing his name.
The Talmud in Bava Basra tells us, that from the fact that Ishmael , the
older son, yielded the precedence to Isaac, the more holy son, we gather
that Ishmael repented of his evil ways and, in fact this is what is meant
by the "good old age" mentioned in connection with Abraham's passing.
Amazing! An entire life's transformed is embodied in the smallest act of
letting a younger brother go first. And Ishmael becomes the hero after
whom the great rabbi is named! How is that? Just because he let his
younger brother go first? Is that really possible?
Richard Busby (1606-1695), headmaster of the prestigious Westminster School
was a strict disciplinarian. It is reputed that in his 58 years as
headmaster only one pupil passed through the school without being
personally beaten by Busby. With its fine reputation, the school was
visited by King Charles II.
As Dr. Busby was showing King Charles II around the school, it was noticed
that, contrary to etiquette, the headmaster kept his hat on in the royal
presence. One of the kings aides, mention this flagrant violation of
protocol to the headmaster.
Bushy demurred. He excused himself in these words: "It would not do for my
boys to suppose that there existed a greater man on earth than I."
Think about it. Who was at that funeral? All of Ishmael's grandchildren,
each strongly entrenched in the belief that they were the descendants of
the truly chosen son.
And now comes Avraham's funeral, an occasion attended by hundreds of his
followers and admirers. Protocol would have the true heir walk
first. It’s the perfect setting to make a statement. It is the setting
where you can insist that you are the true heir and tell the world, that
now, with the passing of Avraham, "there is no greater man on earth than I."
Yet Ishmael defers. He lets Isaac go first. It is perhaps a greater act
than laying down a sword or embracing an enemy. It is breaking an
ingrained character trait. And breaking a character trait, breaking the
desire for a little bit of respect in the eyes of observers is a true sign
Thank you Rabbi Yishmael's mom for letting us know that. Thank you
Yishmael for being so brave. Pass the message
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
If you enjoy the weekly Drasha, now you can receive the best of Drasha in book form! Purchase
Parsha Parables at a very special price!
The author is the Associate Dean of the
Yeshiva of South Shore.
Drasha is the e-mail edition of FaxHomily, a weekly torah facsimile on the weekly portion which is sponsored by The Henry and Myrtle Hirsch Foundation