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Tuesday
Oct282014

CONCLUDING EXILE WITH ABRAHAM

“In effect, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not just our ancient Biblical ancestors; they are alive within each and every one of us. We have inherited their spiritual traits even though it is close to 4,000 years since they inhabited the physical world.  Thus, in the Amida prayer, which is designed to forge a deeper connection between us and G-d, we mention the three Patriarchs equally; they are indispensable resources and influences in our collective and individual lives.”

THE PATRIARCHS

The Talmud (P’sachim 117b), cited by Rashi, discusses the uniqueness of Abraham even among the other two Patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob. We begin our daily prayers, known as the Shmoneh Esrei or Amida, by mentioning all three Patriarchs: “The G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac and the G-d of Jacob.” Yet when we conclude the blessing, we only say, “Blessed are You, G-d, the shield of Abraham.” The Talmud, commenting on the opening verse of this week’s parsha, discusses this discrepancy in the following manner:

“I will make of you a great nation” – this is what we say: “The G-d of Abraham.”

       “I will bless you” – this is what we say: “The G-d of Isaac.”

       “And I will make your name great” – this is what we say: “The G-d of Jacob.”

It could be thought that we should conclude with [a mention of] all of them. The Torah therefore states: “And you shall be a blessing,” [to teach us that] “we conclude with you [Abraham] and we do not conclude with all of them [Isaac and Jacob].”

This Talmudic commentary needs clarification. Why would Abraham feel better knowing that he was singled out for special mention that excluded his beloved son Isaac and grandson Jacob? Any loving parent and grandparent would relish the idea that his progeny would be regarded as equals or even as superior to himself.

THE THREE PILLARS

The following is partially based on an answer from a 20th century Chassidic work, Ateres Tzvi.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not just great people; they were the very foundation of the Jewish nation. Moreover, they personified the most basic traits and virtues that we, their descendants, need to fulfill our mission on earth.

Thus, our Sages inform us that the three Patriarchs represent the three pillars upon which the world stands (Avos 1:2): Torah, Avoda (sacrificial service or prayer), and G’milus Chassadim (acts of loving kindness).

It is axiomatic that a Jew cannot be content to strive for one or two of these pillars. We are required to incorporate all three in our daily lives. A Jew is duty-bound to study Torah each and every day. Even one who is heavily involved in earning a livelihood must separate at least some time in the morning and the evening to study Torah. Likewise, every Jew is obligated to pray to G-d multiple times daily. And, obviously, one cannot be a good Jew without reaching out to sustain the less fortunate in our midst by acts of loving kindness.

It is therefore also axiomatic in Jewish thought that we need to invoke the names and traits of all three Patriarchs because they represent these three pillars, all of which are indispensable:

ABRAHAM AND
LOVING KINDNESS

Abraham personified kindness at its best.

This explains the Talmud’s finding an allusion to Abraham in the words “I will make of you a great nation.” To create a community and a nation one must have and act on a profound sense of responsibility towards every individual. Without dedication to acts of kindness, giving and sharing, a society cannot survive. The stark contrast between Abraham and the people of Sodom highlights the importance of this trait: The Sodomite people were destroyed because a society cannot survive unless it is based on the principle of kindness. In the Chassidic translation of the words of the Psalmist (89:3): “The world was built with kindness.”

ISAAC AND PRAYER

Isaac is known particularly for his role as a sacrifice, which parallels the pillar of avoda – the sacrificial service or prayer its substitute.

This explains the Talmud’s finding an allusion to Isaac in the words “I will bless you.” Our prayers are replete with blessings, particularly the Amida, which comprises 18 blessings. Our prayers are designed to elicit G-d’s blessings to the world.      

JACOB AND TORAH

Jacob is described in the Torah as one who “dwelled in the tents.” Rashi explains that this is an allusion to the tents of Torah study which he frequented. Therefore Jacob represents the pillar of Torah.

This explains why the Talmud sees an allusion to Jacob in the words, “And I will make your name great.” Torah study has the capacity to enhance one’s reputation. It is the Torah scholars that people look up to for guidance and inspiration.

Thus we begin our most important prayer by invoking the names of all three Patriarchs as a way of establishing the necessity to connect to G-d through all of three approaches.

“WHO IS LIKE YOUR NATION ISRAEL?”

For most of Jewish history, the Jewish nation, as a whole, has scrupulously respected and lived in accord with these three pillars. Certainly there have been many who fell short of the mark. Moreover, even those who have studied assiduously can always find ways of enhancing their learning experience. One can either devote more time to one’s study or study with more depth, enthusiasm and passion. However, on balance, we, as a people, have done quite well in this regard. Even the simple Jew was able to learn at his own level and picked up much more knowledge by osmosis.

Insofar as prayer is concerned, Jews always prayed. In most of our journeys through the various exiles we had no choice. Helpless against pogroms and massacres, we were compelled to turn heavenward and beseech G-d to save us in our times of need.

The same can be said about acts of loving kindness. There never was a people who gave so much Tz’daka. Rich or poor, Jews contributed with their souls, bodies and money. Every community took care of its poor. For a community to have a miser was a novelty. Stories were told about them because they were so rare, and so reviled. And even many of those misers preferred to give Tz’daka anonymously and suffer the indignity of a community’s ridicule. So engrained was the desire to give Tz’daka, that Jewish law had to place a limit. One is obliged to give at least 10 percent of one’s net income to Tz’daka, preferably 20 percent. However, the Talmud rules, one is not permitted to give more than 20 percent. And even this prohibition has its loopholes. Many a rabbinic authority has found ways to accommodate those who wanted to give more.

In light of the above we can comfortably recite the Biblical praises of Israel: “Who is like Your nation Israel, one nation on earth.” Indeed, we are unique in the way we have excelled in these three domains that our forefathers represent.

ALL THREE ARE NEEDED

In effect, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not just our ancient Biblical ancestors; they are alive within each and every one of us. We have inherited their spiritual traits even though it is close to 4,000 years since they inhabited the physical world.

Thus, in the Amida prayer, which is designed to forge a deeper connection between us and G-d, we mention the three Patriarchs equally; they are indispensable resources and influences in our collective and individual lives.

HOW DO WE CONCLUDE?

A question remains. Granted, we have excelled in all three areas. Granted also that we must continue to integrate Torah study with prayer and acts of kindness. But which of these three is the most salient aspect of this triad? Which one will we need to specialize in beyond all others to conclude our mission in Galus? This indeed is the essence of the Talmud’s question, “How do we conclude?” The question is not just about the concluding part of the prayer; it is about the conclusion of history prior to the onset of the Final Redemption. Where should we place our greatest emphasis in the final days of Galus/exile?

The Talmud’s unequivocal answer is: Abraham! Notwithstanding the importance of Torah study and prayer, Abraham’s trait of kindness must now dominate.

This conclusion about the supremacy of kindness in the current age is rooted in the words of the Alter Rebbe. His classic work, Tanya (Igeres HaKodesh sec. 9), offers a mystical explanation for why our primary focus prior to the Messianic Age must be on helping those who have nothing of their own. Since G-d’s presence (known as the Sh’china) has descended to the very nadir of existence (a process which started with the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and has spiraled ever downward as our exile progressed) we too must reach out to those who are in the abyss. Only this can empower us to connect to the Divine because that precisely is where the Divine resides.

INTERTWINED

One may take this lesson a step further. By concluding the Amida with Abraham’s ideal of kindness we actually reinforce the other two pillars: Torah study and prayer. In our day and age one must engage in acts of kindness to help those who are poor in terms of their Torah knowledge. Likewise, we must apply kindness to prayer and implore G-d to bring salvation to the entire world by sending Moshiach now. Hence, while the focus may be on Abraham, both Isaac and Jacob are subsumed within Abraham.

 

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