Awesome may be an overused word in our day, but how else can we describe the task given to Rabi Yishmael ben Elisha, Kohen Gadol? The cruel Roman emperor had decreed that ten Sages of Israel must die. How were they to know if this was a heavenly decree that could be rescinded by doing teshuvah or if the decree was an unalterable expression of Hashem’s Will? The others asked Rabi Yishmael to ascend to Shamayim and find out.
As with Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the first Sage to be martyred, there is some doubt as to which Rabi Yishmael ben Elisha was one of the Ten Martyrs mentioned in both Midrash Eleh Ezkerah and the piyyut by the same name. Was this the Rabi Yishmael who served in the Second Beis HaMikdash as Kohen Gadol, and who was a friend of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel? Or was it the Rabi Yishmael ben Elisha who came from a family of Kohanim Gedolim but who lived at the time of Rabi Akiva – after Churban Bayis Sheni? Although a compelling argument can be made for either claim, we will follow the opinion of those who believe that it was the Rabi Yishmael who served in Bayis Sheni as Kohen Gadol.
The Talmud states that the Kohen Gadol has to be greater than the other Kohanim in strength, physical beauty, wisdom and wealth so that he will be respected by all (Yoma 18a). Rabi Yishmael was known for his exceptionally beautiful physical appearance and, according to Midrash Eleh Ezkerah, he had a face like an angel. Where did such beauty come from?
The Midrash tells us that for many years Rabi Yishmael’s parents were childless. Finally, his mother asked his father, “So many other people have children. Why don’t we?” He replied that the problem could be found at the door of the mikvah. When other women saw an inappropriate thing right after immersing, they returned to the mikvah and immersed again. Because she wasn’t careful about this, they hadn’t merited having children.
“I will be careful from now on,” she promised. Sure enough, the next time she left the mikvah the first thing she saw was a dog. She returned to the mikvah, immersed and departed—only to be confronted this time by the sight of a pig. This went on until she had immersed eighty times, and then Hashem at last took pity upon her. He sent the Malach Gavriel, in the appearance of her husband, to sit by the door of the mikvah so that he would be the first thing she saw. That night she conceived and, according to the Midrash, her son resembled Gavriel in both form and face.
Although he was himself blessed with many outstanding attributes, according to the Gemara (Berachos 7a) it was Rabi Yishmael who teaches us that the blessing of even an ordinary person shouldn’t be treated lightly in our eyes. Once Rabi Yishmael entered the Kodesh Hakedoshim to offer the incense and he had a vision of Hashem seated upon His throne. Hashem spoke to him, saying, “Yishmael, My son, bless Me!” Rabi Yishmael then uttered his famous blessing, “May it be Your will that Your mercy overpower Your anger and Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes, and that You act toward Your children with Your attribute of mercy and go beyond the letter of the law for them.” Hashem nodded in response to Rabi Yishmael’s bracha which led him to say: if Hashem “acknowledged” my blessing even though I am just flesh and blood, we too should not belittle a blessing given to us by someone we consider to be a simple person.