The Torah portion centers on arrangements for the burial of Sarah. But it also ends with a narration of the death of Abraham (Genesis 25:9). Surprisingly, Yishmael who – along with his mother – was unceremoniously expelled from Abraham’s household (Genesis 21:14), joins together with the brother he mocked in burying their father. What led to Yishmael’s return is unstated. But Jewish tradition can offer a reasonable explanation; one that begins with a missing Hebrew letter.
Moses is described as “the humblest man” on earth (Numbers 12:3). Yet the Hebrew word for “humble” – anav – is spelled without the usual letter “yod.” According to one popular explanation, it was Moses himself who left out the “yod” as he was writing the Torah because the “yod” represented God, and Moses’ very humility led him to dismiss any correspondence between himself and God. For mystics, however, there was a further lesson. Every Jew (yid, in Yiddish), like the Hebrew letter “yod,” has some small dot or spark of Jewishness no matter how distant they become from Jewish practice. The “pintele yid” can be awakened.
A story associated with the Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (d. 1760) tells of a little boy who blew his flute in the middle of the most sacred prayer service on Yom Kippur. But unlike the congregants who were aghast at this perceived outrage, the Ba’al Smem Tov had a different perspective. The little boy was analphabetic yet, carried away by the solemnity of the occasion, wanted to join in with the congregation in the only way he could. The Ba’al Shem Tov saw in this little boy the spark of Judaism that resided in his heart but did not reach expression until that moment. Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson reported that when the German bomb were dropped on Warsaw during World War II, all the Jews who happened to be thrust together in a shelter yelled “Shema Yisrael,” including those who were secular or apostates.
Yishmael, despite the fact that he was distanced from Abraham, still had within him that precious spark that impelled him to pay his final respects. Rather than dismiss today those Jews who are non-observant or even hostile, we should find ways to awaken the spark within them, the pintele yid.