Genesis Fiction: Chayei Sara
Though Ishmael was thirteen years Isaac’s senior, he still looked more muscular, more vigorous than the scholarly-looking half-brother. Ishmael’s decades as a marauder had done nothing to lessen his vitality. The enormous assembly opened a path for Ishmael as he strode confidently, making his way to meet Isaac at the entrance to the Machpela cave, nestled in the Hebron hills.
Isaac had thought about this meeting for some time. He would show the traditional honor to his estranged, exiled older brother.
Ishmael stopped within two paces of Isaac with an unreadable expression on his face. The assembly seemed to be holding its breath, waiting to see how this reunion of the sons of Abraham would unfold.
Isaac outstretched his arms to Ishmael, giving him a light embrace and perfunctory kisses on either cheek. Ishmael reciprocated instinctively, but still held himself tightly.
“Brother,” Isaac said formally, bowing his head lightly.
“Brother.” Ishmael mirrored the motion.
“It is a great honor to our father that you came to participate in his burial ceremony,” Isaac announced.
“Isaac, it is you who honor me, by allowing me to participate.”
“How could it be any other way? You are his Eldest. Please lead us into the cave to commence the ceremony.” Isaac beckoned to the narrow cave opening.
“No Isaac. You should enter first.”
“Father would have wanted me to honor you and let you start the proceedings.”
“You honor me by having waited for me and allowing me to participate at all. I am not even deserving of this honor. I have been a disgrace and a blemish to our Father’s name. You are his true heir. The world knows this.” Ishmael looked Isaac in the eye and then lowered his head.
Isaac reached out to hold Ishmael by the shoulder. “It is true that Father might have been disappointed with your lifestyle, but do not doubt that he ever loved you any less.”
Ishmael looked up, his voice heavy with emotion. “That is what is perhaps most painful. He loved me, yet he still exiled me.”
“You left him no choice. You threatened to ruin his mission and everything he stood for.”
“Now I know. I was too headstrong. I did not understand what he kept telling me. He kept giving me second-chances. I presumed there was no line I could not cross.”
“I think that if it had been solely up to Father, he never would have banished you. God gave him a direct command.”
“Yes. Father probably should have been firmer with me at an earlier stage, before he had to take such drastic measures. I almost died in the desert.”
“God has been with you, in His own way. I do not believe He ever abandoned you, even in the depths of your trouble.”
“God has indeed been with me, and He has given me great wealth, children and success in all my undertakings. However, I was not always with God.”
“Come then my brother.” Isaac tried maneuvering Ishmael towards the entrance. “Lead us into the cave. I can see clearly see you have repented from your ways. God loves the penitent and it would give Father great pleasure for you to initiate the ceremony.”
“No.” Ishmael said with quiet finality, not budging from his place. “Of this I am adamant and have given much thought. You have been and always will be Father’s true heir, son of his beloved soul-mate Sarah. Whatever claim I might have had as Firstborn, I renounced by turning my back on Father’s teachings and ways. While I deeply regret what I have done with my life, and will try to make amends with what remains of it, some things cannot be changed. Some wrongs cannot be righted. The blemishes may never completely heal. You are the true and only heir. Father’s faith and mission will run true in your bloodline.”
“Are you certain that you wish to relinquish this honor?” Isaac asked tenderly.
“Yes, my brother. Besides, it is disrespectful to both our Father and the assembled multitude for us to debate further.”
Isaac squeezed Ishmael’s shoulder, and then suddenly embraced him in a strong and long embrace. Tears flowed down both their eyes.
Without another word, Isaac turned around and led the way to the narrow cave entrance, followed closely by Ishmael.
For the first time in their relationship, Isaac felt that his back was not in danger from his brother. In fact, he felt safer.
* * * * * *
Genesis Chapter 25:
8 And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. 9 And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre; 10 the field which Abraham purchased of the children of Heth; there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife.
Secondary Sources: (from Eshai HaTanach)
Since his father Abraham doted on him and did not rebuke him, Ishmael embarked on an evil course, so that eventually Abraham came to hate him and banished him from his house empty-handed. Shemot Rabbah 1:1
After his father had banished him, he sat at the crossroads and robbed people. Shemot Rabbah 1:1
His mother sent to her father’s house and took for him a wife by the name of Fatimah. Three years later Abraham again went to see his son. He arrived at midday and found Ishmael’s wife at home. “Give me a little bread and a little water, for my soul is weary from the road,” he asked. She took it out and gave it to him. Abraham stood and prayed before the Holy One, Blessed is He, and Ishmael’s house became filled with all good things. When Ishmael came, his wife told him about it, and Ishmael knew that his father still loved him. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 30
“These are the years of Ishmael’s life” (Genesis 25:17). Why did Scripture trace the years of a wicked person here? Because he came all the way from the middle of the desert to perform an act of kindness – burial of his father. Bereshit Rabbah 62:5
His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him (Genesis 25:9). Here Ishmael the son of the maidservant showed honor to Isaac the son of the lady, by giving him precedence. Bereshit Rabbah 62:3
Since the older Ishmael gave precedence to his younger brother Isaac, we infer that he repented. Tractate Bava Batra 16b