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Never give up on people who have strayed from the right path. If Ishmael came back, anyone can!

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

The week’s Torah portion is “Chayei Sara” (Genesis 23:1-25:18) and in it we read about the death of Sara, and later, at the end of the reading, we read about the death of Abraham, as well. We’re going to focus on the latter.

When Abraham died, we are told that he was buried by his two sons — Isaac and Ishmael. The commentators are quick to note Ishmael’s presence at Abraham’s funeral considering that he was estranged from his father for most of his life due to his sinful lifestyle. We see from here, say our sages, that Ishmael had repented form his evil ways and returned to his family and the Jewish people.

Indeed, another “proof” that Ishmael repented towards the end of the life can be seen by the fact that the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Ishmael was named after him. No Jewish mother would name her son after someone who remained wicked his whole life. Based on these, and other sources and teachings, we see that Ishmael ultimately repented and changed his ways.

We are also told that Isaac “officiated” at the funeral rather than Ishmael.

The question is asked: Why do the commentators wait until this week’s Torah reading to inform us that Ishmael repented.

There is an earlier Scriptural source that could have been used to show us that Ishmael repented, namely, the episode of the “Akeida” – the near sacrifice of Isaac. We are told that Abraham took two assistants along with him and Isaac on the way to the Akeida site: Eliezer and Ishmael. If Ishmael would have still been corrupt and evil then Abraham would not have taken him on what was essentially the holiest mission ever given to a human being! Indeed, this was many years before Abraham died! So again, why did the sages wait until the funeral of Abraham to point out that Ishmael repented?

It is explained that the episode of the funeral was a better proof, and hence better opportunity, to tell us that Ishmael had repented. This is because it is possible that as long as Abraham was alive it was all just a show. Maybe Ishmael was merely “walking the walk” to please his father, but perhaps he didn’t really change and repent. But now that Abraham was dead, and Ishmael still practiced a religious lifestyle, it was the proof that Ishmael really was for real. He even showed respect to his brother by allowing him to officiate!

Ishmael was (originally!) one of the worst personalities of the Bible. He was past the point of no return. We gave up on him. But yes, against all odds, he surprised us. He came back.

We all know people who have strayed from Judaism. We must always have hope and faith that they will return. We must welcome them, accept them, and pray for them.

Never give up on them. If Ishmael came back, anyone can.

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below: