Is the First Always First - Parshat Chayei Sarah
The concept of being first was discussed in a recent blog about bikkurim. That blog discussed the responsibilities, relationship and conditions of being first just as there were certain restrictions and obligations regarding the bikkurim, the first fruit. But a bechor, a firstborn, is he always the bechor? We find throughout Bereishit that the firstborn does not automatically claim firstborn status.1 It can be stripped or waived. Esav waived his right, Menashe was passed over, Reuven lost hisright, etc. How about Yishmael - kind of a sticky situation there. Yishmael was the firstborn of Avraham from Hagar, and Yitzchak was the firstborn of Sarah. Did Yishmael claim his status, being the actual firstborn of Avraham?
At Avraham's funeral, the Gemara points out2, Yitzchak and Yishmael both attended. Yet through a close reading of the verses from this week's parsha, Parshat Chayei Sarah, we see that though Yishmael was the elder, Yitzchak was the one leading the procession as his name is placed first.3 Yishmael allowed Yitzchak to take the leadership role, the role of the firstborn, the bechor. The Gemara assumes from this that Yishmael was righteous in his later days for Yishmael had waived the right to his firstborn privileges in favor of his younger, though more righteous, brother, Yitzchak.
This situation, at his father's funeral, where everybody who was anybody was present, was the perfect opportunity for Yishmael to make a statement about who the true heir is to Avraham's stature. And Yishmael stepped aside. Yishmael recognized Yitzchak's greatness and let him be first.4
It was through such a great gesture that Yishmael's name is remembered by association. There is a custom to name children for great men, and as a matter of fact, during the times of the Mishna, at least one of the great sages of the time, Rabbi Yishmael Ben Elisha, carried this name and his name is even mentioned in our daily prayers.
From a simple but brave act of humility, Yishmael's name is remembered daily. We don't always know what is the right thing to do, but at least we should be open to the experience. Thank you Yishmael for teaching us this lesson.
1. Much of this week's blog is based on a wonderful article by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky.
2. Bava Basra 16b
3. Bereishit 25:9
4. Sizing up the situation and searching for the unique meaning at that moment is a central theme in logotherapy
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Have A Great Shabbat!