In various contexts throughout the Talmud and Midrashic sources, Chazal pointed to numerous different examples of teshuva that serve for us as models of different kinds, or aspects, of repentance. One such model is that of Yishmael, Avraham’s older son. In a brief and vague passage in Masekhet Bava Batra (16b), the Gemara notes that when the Torah describes the burial of Avraham, it tells, “His sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael, buried him” (Bereishit 25:9). The Torah mentions Yitzchak before Yishmael, suggesting that Yishmael deferred to Yitzchak and allowed him to walk ahead of him during the procession. This deference which Yishmael showed to Yitzchak, his younger brother, indicated to the Gemara that Yishmael repented. Rashi cites the Gemara’s remark in his Torah commentary (Bereishit 25:9).
How might we explain this “repentance” performed by Yishmael? How exactly did Yishmael’s deference to Yitzchak demonstrate his teshuva?
Earlier in Sefer Bereishit (21:9), we read that Sara demanded that Avraham banish Yishmael from their home because of his treatment of Yitzchak. The Torah does not clarify what precisely Yishmael was doing, but Rashi cites one interpretation that Yishmael would tell Yitzchak that as the older brother, he would be receiving a double portion of Avraham’s estate after his passing. According to this explanation, it seems, the tensions between Yishmael and Yitzchak revolved around the question of the birthright, whether this special status belonged to Yishmael, the older brother, despite his being born by Avraham’s maidservant, or to Yitzchak, the son of Avraham’s primary wife.
On this basis, perhaps, we might explain the Gemara’s comment that Yishmael performed teshuva. By deferring to Yitzchak, Yishmael demonstrated that he recognized his mistake and acknowledged Yitzchak’s rights. He showed that although he had previously insisted that he deserved the privileges of the birthright, he now realized that he was mistaken, and that these privileges belong to his younger brother. This is an especially rare, and courageous, form of teshuva – admitting that one’s long-held beliefs and opinions are mistaken. It is very difficult for us to change the ideas and perceptions we’ve long had about ourselves, about others, or about specific issues. We prefer to settle into a “comfort zone” of ideas and opinions, and stubbornly stick to them without opening our minds to the possibility that we might be mistaken. Yishmael’s teshuva is an example of this kind of “repentance” – opening our minds to entertain the possibility that our long-held ideas and opinions might be wrong, that we might not necessarily see everything the right way. Humbly acknowledging the possibility of misconception is a vital part of the lifelong process of growth, and ought to be a vital part of the process of teshuva in which we are to engage during this time of year.