Rav Asher Sabag
Former Shaliach in Chicago (2003-4)
Parshat Lech Lecha is the first installment in the story of our nation’s Avot (forefathers) – Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov – whom we mentioned in each of our prayers. Their actions serve as models for our national and religious lives, and we can say with great certainty that the foundations of our faith and heritage are derived from the stories of their deeds.
The Ramban (Bereishit 12:6) explains why the Torah includes many seemingly trivial details about the Avot – such as their precise travel routes; whether or not they dug a well; etc:
“I will tell you a rule; go understand it. In all of the following portions about Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and this is a significant topic, our Rabbis mentioned briefly and they said, ‘Whatever happened to the fathers is a siman(sign or signal) for the sons.’ And therefore, much is written about the travels and digging of the wells and other incidents. And one who thinks about it will think that these are extraneous matters which have no purpose. But all of them come to teach about the future, because when an incident occurs to a navi (prophet) among the three Avot, one should extract from it what has been decreed for him and for his descendents. And you should know that the ‘decree of the wakeful ones’ (Daniel 4:14) – when the strength of the decree is carried out, there will be a resemblance. The decree will be carried out no matter what. And therefore, the neviim will perform an action in the nevu’ot etc.”
Thus, the Ramban outlines his exegetical approach to the Avot’s deeds and actions. Specifically, the stories about the Avot serve as a prophetic indicator of what is set to occur in future generations. These prophecies must be fulfilled, because the Avot’s actions actualized the prophecies. Examples include: Avraham goes down to Shechem, because of what will later happen there for Dena bat Yaakov; Avraham’s descent into Egypt alludes to Yisrael’s enslavement there; etc.
Traditionally, our educational approach has always been to model ourselves after the Avot. Yet, at first glance, this method seems to be counterintuitive. As we know, every generation is granted suitable and appropriate leaders, who demonstrate proper conduct. Although these leaders are immeasurable greater than the average person of their generation, they still possess a certain modicum of humanity. Therefore, their actions and achievements can be emulated. However, the tzadikim (righteous ones) of the previous generation always seem distant and above human frailties. As a result, we have difficulty viewing them as role models. Needless to say, when it comes to our ancient forbearers, this idea is magnified. When we hear stories about them, our hair stands on end, and we can not fathom how a mere mortal could possibly reach such lofty heights.
Chazal note that when a person ascends to the beit din shel maalah (the Heavenly court), he is judged by the tzadikim of his own generation. They can comprehend all the trials he underwent, and therefore, he is more likely to be proven innocent. In contrast,tzadikim from previous generations would likely deem him guilty.
Consequently, how are we supposed to learn something from stories about the Avot? After all, a child who is told to observehachnasat orchim (hospitality) because Avraham was hospitable will likely respond, “But I’m not Avraham Avinu,” – thereby bringing the discussion to a close. How could Chazal have learned so many midot (character traits) and derech eretz (loosely, proper conduct) from the Avot’s actions?
Moreover, the Avot were neither the only ones who gave their lives al kiddush Hashem nor the only ones who performed acts ofchessed v’emet. For instance, in one version of the famous story of Chana and her seven sons, she says, as her youngest son is about to be killed, “Tell Avraham Avinu that he sacrificed (akad – literally, bound) one son but I sacrificed seven.” Sadly, many Jews throughout history endured tremendous suffering and were forced to sacrifice their lives. And yet, we only refer to Akeidat Yitzchak and not the akeidah of Chana and her seven sons. Similarly, we only mention Avraham’s trials – but not those of the Holocaust victims. Why is this so?
Evidently, the Ramban’s statement that “ma’aseh avot siman labanim – the fathers’ actions are a siman (sign or signal) for the sons” has an additional dimension. In Parshat Bereishit, Kayin is punished for killing his brother by being forced to wander the land. According to some commentaries, Kayin did not fully comprehend the severity of his deed and was therefore surprised by the harsh punishment. However, from our point of view, Kayin’s punishment seems unaccountably mild. Why did Hashem not sentence Kayin to death, in accordance with the Torah’s own laws?
Perhaps, Kayin’s limitation was that he could only view matters through a contemporary lens. He was unable to perceive that his act of murder unleashed the trait of bloodthirstiness within mankind.
In fact, each and every action performed by the first humans had ramifications down to our own time. For example, our mortality is a result Adam HaRishon’s sin; when he ate from the eitz hada’at, human nature was affected.
Similarly, Kayin’s sin introduced a major flaw to humanity. Therefore, HaKadosh Baruch Hu forced him to roam the world and thereby witness the devastating effects of his sin. As the Torah teaches us, all of Kayin’s descendents – and the world that they developed – were irrevocably blemished. The damage was so great that all of them – except for Noach and his family – had to be wiped out in the flood.
According to the Kuzari, the list of names in Parshat Bereishit and Parshat Noach – i.e. the twenty generations between Adam and Avraham – comes to teach us that each of those individuals received a kernel of the unique segulah (merit or attribute) which was given to Adam HaRishon before the sin and then transmitted to his descendents. That kernel was active in some individuals but dormant in others.
It was only our holy Avot who managed to bring out the true potential of the kernel, and that ability distinguished them from everyone else. Although we may think that the Akeidah was something that others did as well, there is an essential difference between Avraham and those who followed him. Previously, the concept of mesirut nefesh (sacrificing or devoting one’s life) did not exist in the world; Avraham was the first to discover it. Subsequent generations were only able to duplicate Avraham’s achievement by channeling the power unleashed during his initial deed. In other words, Avraham imprinted mesirut nefesh intoAm Yisrael’s “genes.”
Hence, when we study stories about the Avot and attempt to apply those lessons to our own lives, we are not trying to compare ourselves to them. Rather, the stories permit us to learn about ourselves and the latent strengths which we possess in the Avot’s merit.
This is why we constantly refer to “zechut Avot” (the merit of the Avot). We know that mentioning that our forefathers weretzadikim does not change the fact that we sinned. However, we are saying that – because of the Avot – our basic nature is not sinful; we have been ingrained with kedushahvitaharah (literally, holiness and purity). The sin which we committed is not inherent to us; it was a deviation from our true natures. Therefore, we ask Hashem to have mercy on us and forgive us.
Studying the Avot’s actions teaches us about our weaknesses and strengths, about our limitations which we must overcome, and about the talents which can help us achieve this goal.
So now you know how to respond to someone who claims that he can not meet Avraham Avinu’s standards because he is not Avraham Avinu. You can reply that if he is correct, he apparently is not a descendent of Yisrael.
The Gemara (BT Yevamot 79a) states:
“There are three identifying marks (simanim) to this nation: the merciful ones, the modest ones (baishanim -literally, bashful) and those that bestow loving kindness… Whoever has these three simanim is suited to adhere to this nation.”
According to the Gemara, these characteristics are Am Yisrael’s hereditary attributes, which were bequeathed to us from our holyAvot.
Both the Rambam (Hilchot Issurei Be’ah 19) and the Shulchan Aruch concur:
“And similarly, anyone who has insolence and cruelty and despises humankind and does not bestow loving kindness upon them – is especially suspect out of fear that he may be a Givoni. Because the simanim of the holy nation of Yisrael are: modest ones, merciful ones, and those that bestow loving kindness.”
By referring to these characteristics as “simanim”, the Gemara implies that sometimes these attributes may not be blatantly obvious. However, we are told, a powerful kernel of goodness, which exists deep inside, is waiting to be discovered at the appropriate moment. But if we observe the complete opposite, we must know that a Jew is incapable of such behavior.
Thus – “ma’aseh avot siman libanim.” For the Avot, they were ma’asim (actions); the Avot actualized these attributes – even though that contradicted the nature of the world in their time. But we were gifted these characteristics in our very genes, and all we have to do is discover them within ourselves. Hence, for us, they are called simanim. We must believe in that meritorious kernel imprinted deep within our people and hope that its simanim (indicators) will soon be apparent.