The Patriarchs

The Academy of Eliyahu taught: The world will endure for six thousand years: two thousand (years) of desolation, two thousand of Torah, and two thousand of the Days of Messiah … When did the two thousand of Torah begin? … From (the time of) and the souls whom they (Abraham and Sarah) made (which translates “whom they brought under the yoke of the Torah” (Rashi) in Charan.’ (12:5)

I.  The Emergence

God’s Presence rests upon man to the extent that man permits. If he observes God’s commands only so long as they do not conflict with a particular passion – be it a desire for food, lust, extreme greed for money – then to whatever extent that weakness conflicts with his dedication to the will of God, the Shechinah (the Glory of God) cannot rest upon him. The bearer of God’s Presence is referred to as a ‘chariot’. The Patriarchs are the chariot.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are God’s chariot on earth, because it was through them that His Presence descended to earth and found a place here. So great were they that they were able to negate their selves entirely, dedicating every feeling and fiber of their being to His service. Never was there a selfish consideration. Their very existence – every moment of it negated themselves as individuals with rights and desire, they could totally absorb Godliness and thus become bearers – the Chariot – of His Shechinah.

They were the forerunners and the embodiment of the future nation of Israel, and therefore they alone are called Fathers. The twelve tribes, too are ancestors of the nation, but they are not called fathers. Moses was the shepherd, teacher, prophet, most faithful of God’s household, but he is not a father. David represents the culmination of all God’s plans of creation, the King Messiah who will fulfill the age-old potential that was dashed with Adam’s failure, but David is not a father. Even Noah, literally the father of humanity, is not called the father of the Jewish People. Fatherhood, in the sense that the Patriarchs are fathers, is not measured in biological terms. All that a person is stems from his parents; whatever he becomes represents the development of the latent potential with which he was born. All that Israel is and will yet become, represents the development of the national character that is the legacy of the Patriarchs.

With Abraham, there began a new birth of the history of mankind. Abraham, in a real sense, was as much the ‘first man’ as were Adam and Noah. The Era of Desolation ended with the year 2000. It was indeed a bleak era in history. The fall of Adam, the murder of Abel, the introduction of idolatry, the failure of the first ten generations, the deluge, the failure of then generations after Noah, the Dispersion. But in the year 1948 Abraham was born. When he was fifty-two years old – the year 2000 – he began gathering people together in Charan and teaching them to serve Hashem. With that, an era began. Desolation was over and a new light began to shine upon humanity, the light of Abraham who embodied the light of Torah.

Abraham was a new phenomenon; there had never been anyone like him and he was completely apart from his birthplace and family, even from his parents.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 39) relates that when God commanded Abraham to leave Charan and begin a new life in Eretz Yisrael, he feared that by deserting his parents, he would cause a desecration of God’s Name, for people would say, ‘He abandoned his father to old age!’

  • The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Abraham, I absolve you from the obligation to honor your father and mother, but others will not be similarly absolved. What is more, I will relate the story of his death (in the Torah) prior to your leave-taking as it says first, And Terach died in Charan (11:32) and only afterward And Hasham said to Abram ‘Go…from your land’ (12:1).

Maharal explains that Abraham could be absolved from the commandment as was none other, because he was an entirely new and unique entity. In essence, he bore no relationship to Terach because he was the beginning of a new sort of existence on earth. Before him there was desolation and darkness; with him there was Torah and light.

The new birth represented by Abraham was not completed until all three Patriarchs made their combined contribution. That Abraham’s work was insufficient is demonstrated by the fact that he begot an Ishmael; that Isaac went further but did not complete the task his father began is demonstrated by Esau. But of Jacob the sages say, his bed is perfect. Every child of Jacob was a great person in his own right; together they formed the nation, the Tribes of God.

II.  Three Attributes

The three Patriarchs were different, and therein lay their greatness. Isaac and Jacob did not follow Abraham’s well-trodden path to attain their own closeness to God. Each found his own way. In their three ways are the sum total of all possible variations of service to God. Therefore, they are the Fathers: whatever we do was foreshadowed by them; each succeeding generation of Israel with all its great individuals and differing paths to Torah, prayer, kindness and fulfillment of the commandments, is but further growth of their seeds. We are their children.

Each Patriarch had a prime characteristic: Abraham represents the attribute of kindness, grace and compassion; Isaac represents strength or fear; Jacob represents splendor or truth. Let us examine these characteristics, attempt to define them, and see how they manifest themselves in the service of God.

The attribute of the ‘chesed person’ meaning kindness, is the feeling of a person that he must seek to define the needs of other people and fill them. This is an outer-directed trait. The ‘chesed-person’ (pronounced ‘ha said’) acts not out of selfishness nor pity, but out of a genuine desire to help others materially or spiritually, as the case may be.

The attribute of the “gevurah person’ meaning strength, is driven by a fear of transgression and has a powerful drive toward self-perfection. The ‘gevurah person’ (pronounced ja vur rah) examines his deeds and desires, and will tend to refrain from any act that may fall short of the high standards he seeks to attain.

The attribute of the ‘tiferes person) meaning truth seeks to combine chesed and ‘gevurah’, kindness and strength. By exercising a passion for truth, the tiferes-person (pronounced tie fer-ez) finds the middle course between indulgent kindness which can lead to undesirable excess, and self-critical strength which can stifle achievement. By a passion for truth, the tiferes-person combines both extremes into the blend which results in the fulfillment of duty to oneself as well as to others.

The three traits of kindness, fear, and truth are all desirable and, although every person will have them all in varying degrees, each individual will have a character trait that is dominant, one that best expresses his own personality.

Each individual is required also to serve God in accordance with his unique mission by utilizing all the skills, talent, and resources with which he had been endowed by the Creator, for all of them are the tools given him to make possible the performance of his assigned task.

III. Danger and Development

For someone to realize his potential, he must know his own strengths and weaknesses, and understand whether he is primarily motivated by chessed, gevurah, or tiferes. He must recognize the possibilities and dangers of each course, then seek to maximize the former and minimize the latter. And he must create with himself a combination of all three.

Spiritual growth involves the tension of conflicting forces. The chessed-person, by definition, is giving and is humble – not bringing attention to oneself. His goal is to satisfy the need of another. But by giving he receives as well, both in terms of the personal satisfaction and sense of accomplishment, and in terms of the spiritual growth brought on by his generosity. Thus, the recipient earns the gratitude of the giver, for having made possible the act of chesed.

The giver and the receiver fulfill one another. Whether in the have and have-not, the strongest basis of unified, harmonious living is the ability and wish to share with others – and to become enriched through sharing. This brings in its train a growing and intensifying awareness that people are different and that they complement one another; that no individual is perfect, but that the community, by combining diverse outlooks and capabilities into a single unit, can approach a degree of perfection that is beyond the capacity of any of its individual components.

But man can give only what he has. The man with an abundance of Torah knowledge and spiritual insight but a lack of funds cannot fulfill his responsibility of chesed by freely dispensing nickels and pennies while refusing to share his knowledge. In the same respect, the man rich in worldly goods but poor in Torah cannot carry out his obligations by freely dispensing advice and criticism but hoarding his wealth. To act in that manner, obviously, is not generous but deceitful; it displays a zeal not to give but to withhold, for it limits the giving to the inconsequential, to that which is of little use to the giver while clearly demonstrating to the recipient, “What you need of me I shall not give you; what is useless to me, you are free to take.’

The chessed-person must give what he possesses. Only by giving what is of value to the giver does he enrich the receiver and, in turn, become enriched by having contributed to the common store of mutual development. However, those who help others only at minimum cost to themselves can hardly be considered chesed-people.

This does not mean that the help must always be gratis. The person who earns his livelihood by exercising a laboriously cultivated skill cannot be expected to forgo his primary means of providing for himself and his family – nor should he. But there are ways to sell a product or charge for a service, and still be a giver. The grocer who earns a good living, but feels a responsibility to serve his customers honestly and faithfully, is giving even while he rings up this sale. The financial advisor who earns far more than his clients, but who conscientiously extends himself to ensure that their capital is invested where it will best serve their needs rather than his, is providing a service despite his own commission. Of course there is often an obligation to help others without thought of person gain, but the chesed-person does not cease to be a giver even while engaged in the pursuit of profit, as long as his first concern is that he give.

Giving, however, is not enough. For his own perfection, the chesed-person must also develop gevurah instincts: he must look inward as well as outward, and to do so is by no means an exercise in selfishness. People are not stagnant; and even their obligation to others dictates that they facilitate personal growth so that they may be better able to help others. To become a bigger person requires a selfish focus upon oneself. What am I lacking? How can I improve? How can I best absorb a Torah outlook until it is part of my emotional as well as intellectual make-up?

The human being who runs both lanes of this race – neglecting neither chesed nor gevurah, looking both outward and inward – is the most faithful servant of God, himself, and the community. But how is one to navigate his personal course in the human turmoil of constant obstacles, opportunities, temptations, triumphs, and failures?

The trait that provides the power and balance is tiferes, the splendor of truth. The possibility of achieving it was given to man in the form of Torah, God’s own wisdom distilled from the world of the loftiest spheres to provide the formula for life on earth.

IV.  Traits of the Patriarchs

As we have seen, Abraham represents chesed, for the decisive factor in Abraham’s personality was the unceasing urge to help others. Isaac represents gevurah, for his prime trait was the introspective, self-critical fear of God that sought constantly to purify his motives and perfect his deeds. Jacob – the weaver of the triple thread that eternally combined chesed and gevurah with truth as embodied in Torah. Not until Jacob’s work was done was Israel’s ‘Fatherhood’ stage complete, for until then, the national future was not secure. Abraham’s chesed and Isaac’s gevurah both contained the seeds of mortal danger, for although each of them had taken his own primary characteristic and nurtured, guided, chiseled, and polished it into a spiritual masterpiece, it was not yet enough. There is a danger in chesed and a danger in gevurah.

The single-minded determination to help others requires one to ignore his personal needs. It requires total humility, for if one’s own status, dignity, and comfort matter, then he will stand ahead of others. Even if his own desire for fulfillment can be achieved only by winning recognition as the unselfish protector of the weak, then his kindness is tarnished by an inherently selfish need to use the deficiencies of others as stepping stones to the attainment of his own ends.

Such are the dangers of uncontrolled chesed. Nevertheless chesed is good. God created the universe in order to provide the conditions that make His own kindness possible. The election of His chosen people waited twenty generations and two thousand years until the advent of the Patriarch who was, is, and shall always remain the epitome of kindness. Let us not fail to recognize, however, that Abraham’s kindness was not unbounded by principle. When God’s will demanded it, he could set aside his personal inclinations. When necessary, he could take up arms against the abductors of Lot and expel Hagar and Ishmael. He was in control of his chesed and not vice-versa, he said yes not because he was too weak to say no; he took his natural inclination toward kindness and utilized it as a God-serving, not a self-serving vehicle. That was the greatness of Abraham.

It is not incidental that the emergence of the Two Thousand Years of Torah began with Abraham’s initiation of Charanite converts to the teachings of the Torah. Abraham utilized every ounce of his chesed for good, but he also harnessed its potential for excess. He took Torah – the ultimate truth – and allowed it to guide him to gevurah when called for.

He had two sons, both of whom were heirs to his chesed teaching. During the embryonic era in Israel’s development when the seeds of the entire national future were being sown, God wanted Isaac to forge a path all his own. Isaac was endowed with the gevurah personality. But Ishmael broke no new spiritual paths. He saw Abraham’s kindness but he failed to perceive the steel which underlay it, the principle which directed it. His challenge, like Abraham’s was to face the test of chesed and arm himself with the strength within kindness, that would result in the splendor of truth that could be developed within kindness to create the human masterpiece of an Abraham. But Ishmael failed. He perverted kindness into indulgence, eventually to found a nation distinguished for lust, so dedicated to the satisfaction of its passion that it is quite ready to kill and plunder in its service.

Isaac controlled his trait just as Abraham had controlled his. But in gevurah, too, there is a danger. The inward-looking person, dedicated to self-perfection can become obsessed with his own needs with the result that other people become inconsequential, even contemptible, in his eyes. If his own development is paramount, then he can come to regard others as his tools, meant to serve him, to be used by him. The gevurah-person must temper his nature with chesed in order to attain perfection.

Isaac had two sons. Jacob was heir to Isaac’s gevurah and Abraham’s chesed. From his youth he was dweller in the tents of Torah. When he departed from Isaac and Rebecca to found his own home, he secluded himself for fourteen years in the Academy where he immersed himself uncompromisingly into the sea of Torah. With his passion for truth, he formed the perfect blend of attributes and became the final Patriarch, father of the family without blemish.

But Esau was different. He inherited his father’s strength without his grandfather’s compassion and without his brother’s quest for truthful splendor. The result was the viciously selfish person who became the embodiment of callousness and disregard for others. Esau was a murderer because he deemed the lives of others to be too insignificant to stand in the way of his desire. Arrogance, cruelty, plunder, murder – all these are characteristics of Esau the strong, Esau the unbridled. Because Jacob was the ultimate in good, Esau was the ultimate in evil – resulting in his eternal war against all that Israel represents down through the ages.

V.  God is Master

The various Name of God did not come into being with the creation of the universe, and certainly they were not coined by human beings. His Names are eternal just as He is eternal. The universe was created so that even in this mixture of good and evil, spiritual and material, people would come to recognize that Hashem is One and that all emanates from Him and functions in accordance with His will. When Abraham came upon the scene, mankind recognized a multiplicity of gods, one for each aspect of the universe – one for light, one for darkness, one for fertility, one for vegetation and so on.

But Abraham recognized the truth – Hashem is the God, there had to be one Master of the universe and it is He alone Who rules it every moment of every day.

Abraham called Hasham, – Master – and no one had ever done so before. There had been righteous people on earth before him, people who had heard the word of God and served Him, but none had so enthroned Hashem as Master of every aspect of existence as had Abraham.

God Himself was indebted to Abraham because, until he proclaimed Him as Master, the purpose of Creation had been frustrated. God created the universe so that man would perceive Him and serve Him despite the distractions of material existence. Until Abraham’s time, the world had spun in a downward spiral of apathy and sin; creation had failed, lost meaning, serviced no purpose. Then Abraham revealed new vistas of recognition that Hashem was everywhere and controlled everything. What is more, he would be father to a nation that would carry on his mission of standing up to skeptics and enemies until the day when all would acknowledge its message and accept its teaching. Of course, Abraham could be called master of mankind because, whether they realized or not, they owed their existence to him. But that was not all. God called him My Master, because he had presented God with a gift that even He in all His infinite power, could not fashion for Himself. For even God cannot guarantee that man’s mind and heart would choose truth over evil, light over darkness, spirit over flesh, love of God over love of pleasure, recognition that the Master is God and not whatever inexorable force happens to find favor in the eyes of any current generation of non-believers.

Thus Abraham was the one who made God ‘Master,’ and because he accomplished what God had awaited vainly for two thousand years, God called him ‘master.’

It was this new dimension of service to God based on all-embracing recognition that made Abraham the successor to Adam as the father of God’s nation. Before Abraham could become the father of Israel, he had to sanctify himself through circumcision. The sequence of chapter 17 makes it clear that the final gift of the Land and the gift of offspring – the nation and its home – were dependent upon circumcision. From the words of the Sages, we see that circumcision was a critical indication of a loyalty to God that transcended the limitations of the flesh – and even the strictness of natural law.

Circumcision teaches that man must rise above nature. The seven days of the week symbolize the rule of nature forces, for the physical world was created in seven days. Milah, circumcision, is performed on the eighth day of a child’s life to symbolize that it represents the goal of rising above nature. Adam was born circumcised for he was a superior being, but he failed to maintain his lofty standing. By succumbing to sin and g

grasping evil, he fell prey to the natural forces that should have been his servants. He was instrumental in creating a barrier between himself and holiness. Having set his sights downward toward earth, he could no longer look to the heavens as he was created to do. The barrier of the spirit which he had erected was mirrored in his body as the symbol of his closeness to God, his circumcision, was covered by a barrier of flesh.

Abraham tore down the barriers. He saw God everywhere, miracles were natural for him, natural abstractions withered away. He placed himself above the rule of the seven days. God recognized this change in his spiritual essence by giving him the commandment of circumcision.

Perhaps it was in recognition of this overriding symbolism that Abraham refrained from circumcising himself before being specifically commanded to do so, unlike other commandments which he fulfilled voluntarily. Because circumcision represented God’s acknowledgment that the barrier caused by Adam’s sin had been removed, Abraham could not perform it without a specific command. Circumcision with the inner portents of the deed would have no more value than removing some flesh from the elbow or shoulder. Only God could testify that Abraham had become worthy of the deed in all its meaning, that he had become father of the nation that would fulfill the failed hope of Adam.

VI.  Fathers of History

The Patriarchs embodied in their words and deeds the entire, still unfolding course of Jewish history. Even more significant, they set down the moral principles and character traits by which Jews would live and be distinguished.

There are prophecies which are dependent upon the merit of the recipient. The Jews who left Egypt should have entered Eretz Yisrael after receiving the Torah and remain in the wilderness for a relatively brief period. They sinned and as a result the nation remained in the desert for forty years and the adult generation which left Egypt was not granted the privilege of entering the Land. Similarly we find Abraham asking how he can be sure that his descendants will inherit the Land (15:8). As some commentators explain, he was afraid that future generations would not be sufficiently righteous to merit fulfillment of the prophecy on their behalf. Jacob, too, feared that his own righteousness was inadequate to earn God’s help in saving him from Esau’s murderous army (32:11).

But a prophecy accompanied by a symbolic act, cannot be repealed. This doctrine is affirmed by Ramban who goes on to show how events of Abraham’s life must be understood as prophetic symbols guaranteeing future blessings for his descendants (12:6). Other commentators follow Ramban’s lead in searching the story of the Patriarchs for clues to the future of their children.

Abraham’s life began in suffering and pursuit as Nimrod sought to silence his teachings, but from the time God plucked him from Ur Kasdim, his life was serene, secure, and productive. Israel, too, lived in distress during the early years of its national history; it was exiled and enslaved to Pharaohs who sought to bring about its destruction. But from the time God redeemed it from Egypt and pronounced to be His first-born son, it prospered and advanced to the zenith of David’s and Solomon’s reigns, to the Temple, and to the universal respect and acclaim that marked the golden years of the First Commonwealth.

Isaac began life basking in the glow of Abraham’s eminence. But human illness and physical suffering began with Isaac as he became blind in his later years. The eminence of the Abrahamitic family, too declined in Isaac’s time as four hundred years of exile began with the birth of Isaac who was not accorded the reverence shown Abraham (see commentary to 15:13). The middle period of Israel’s history followed the pattern of Isaac’s life: it began with the glory of previous greatness, but it declined in strife and subjugation as nations conquered Eretz Yisrael, extinguished the nation’s ‘light’ – the Holy Temple – and exiled the people.

Jacob, the last Patriarch, embodied the final chapters of Israel’s history. Nearly all of his life was a succession of tribulation and anguish until the last years of his life when he enjoyed peace and serenity in Egypt, his family restored and flourishing as it built toward the future redemption and the gift of Sinai. As the Talmud expounds in Ta’anis 5a, Jacob never died; only his physical shell was removed and interred, but the essential Jacob endures in the highest form of spiritual life. So, too, Israel. Beset by exile and being violently demolished, driven from continent to continent, reviled by foe and pseudo-friend, the nation suffers throughout its life. But the End of Days will bring fulfillment and vindication. The Temple – the eternal Temple – will stand and Israel will be reunited in a spiritual summit that will be vindication of all that has gone before, from which the rays of Torah will light the world, toward which mankind will stream to do His will with a complete and sincere heart.

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