The last we hear of Yishmael he was banished against the better judgment of his father Abraham and takes up residence in the Wilderness of Paran (Genesis 21:21). Suited to his wild tendencies (Genesis 16:12) Yishmael becomes a bowman and seems to lead an irresolute life. The rabbis picture him as a brigand. Yet when Abraham dies, the biblical narrative relates that “his sons Isaac and Yishmael buried him” in the cave near Beersheva that Abraham purchased for Sarah’s burial. The sudden reappearance of Yishmael goes unexplained. However, from a psychological perspective readers have a good idea about Yishmael’s motivation.
Consider a recent story that appeared in the New York Times (June 2020) in which reporter Motoko Rich describes how she traveled from Tokyo to Los Angeles to be with her dying father six thousand miles away. Her father was lying in an oxygen tent and suffering from congenital heart failure. Even without COVID restrictions, she could not be any closer to him than six feet away. But that did not deter her. In examining her own feelings Rich speculates that what impelled her to make the fateful journey was her sense of guilt.
The same would probably apply to Yishmael. He likely thought of himself as a disappointment to his celebrated father who, it seems, loved him completely and yielded to Sarah’s demand that he be banished for tormenting Isaac only when God took Sarah’s side. Like so many children today, Yishmael wanted to do the right thing by his father even though more than distance separated them. This was his last opportunity to offer respect, reconciled to playing a subordinate role (Isaac is mentioned first) though he was the firstborn.
Guilt is often a driving motivator of human conduct. The Torah includes an entire set of sacrifices called “guilt offerings” to be brought by those with a troubled conscience. Of course the greater lesson to be learned is rather than wait for guilt to move us to act, act in such a way that we feel no guilt.