March 8, 2021 |

The Attributes of the Forefathers

Everyone knows that having a father is an important part of a child's life. Children who - unfortunately - grow up without the loving touch of a father must struggle to replace the special admiration and love that comes from a father's touch. In some cases, an adopted father, or a father-figure, can substitute and - when none of these are available - perhaps a deeply-revered role model can at least provide some outlet for the love that a child wants to share with and receive from their father. But it is not the same.

I know that there are times when my children just need their abba, especially when they are young. They need my attention, my affection, my approval, my discipline, sometimes just to have me home where they can see me and know that I am there. As they grow older, I know that they will develop a more complicated relationship with me. On one hand, I hope that they will continue to respect, love and admire me and the values I have imparted to them. On the other, I know that they will come to recognize me for the real person that I am, with all my flaws and limitations. They will probably taste disappointment when they realize that I am not the super-hero they imagined me to be. On one hand, I hope that they will seek my affection, presence and approval when they are older. On the other, I know that they will need to have their distance, that they will want to break away to establish their own independence.

In addition to our biological fathers, Judaism presents us with a number of other father-figures, thankfully not music or film celebrities, or sport-stars. First, we have Hashem, the Holy One, to whom we turn as avinu malkeinu, "our father, our king." Hashem wants us, at least sometimes, to relate to Him as a father, to feel close to Him, to idolize him, to be educated by Him, the way we do with a father. He also disciplines us with love and allows us to exercise free will, to have our own space. And He will always love us, no matter what.

Second, we have our sages, Chazal[1], the master-teachers of the tradition, the links in the chain of the Oral Tradition, who passed down the teachings of the Torah from generation to generation. We think of them also as our fathers, our teachers, our role-models. Some commentatorsinterpret Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) to mean Ethics of our Fathers, the sages. These figures also serve for us a role-models and teachers. We strive to incorporate their values and practices in our lives, while recognizing that we live in a different world than they did (almost 2000 years ago!) and using their teachings to craft our own 21st century Jewish experience.

Finally, we have our fore-fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak (Isaac) and Ya'akov (Jacob). Every time, we stand in front of God to say the amida (silent devotion), we begin by saying "Blessed are You, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak and the God of Ya'akov", acknowledging that we are their descendants and that we are talking to the same Hashem to Whom they spoke. They are our teachers and our role-models in the Torah.

Of course, it is unusual to have three fathers. For better or for worse, we usually have the one father that Hashem chose for us to have. If we are especially fortunate, we might also have the loving presence of a grandfather or great-grandfather. However, in a special and extraordinary way, the Torah has identified these three personalities as being our "fathers." In this week's sidra (Torah portion), we are introduced to Ya'akov, the final patriarch. This enables us to get the whole picture of our forefathers, now that we know all three.

Because our patriarchs are not actually part of our families and we do not (unfortunately) actually get to be with them, the Rabbis and the Chassidic masters following them have always identified them as not only human beings in history but also as exemplars of certain kinds of character attributes, of conduits of certain kinds of energy.

Avraham represents chessed, kindness. This is his atrribute, exemplified by him running to greet and strangers in the desert to welcome them into his home. Avraham's chessed is the first building-block of Jewish values, the first Jewish DNA that we inherit. It is also the way in which Hashem treated Avraham, showing him chessed by giving him the land of Israel and the promise of becoming a special people. The way in which Avraham serves God - which is the corollary to the kindess that he exhibits - is service from love, ahava. Avraham and Hashem had a relationship of love.

Yitzchak represents gevura, strength of character. It is exemplified in his patience, stoicism and silence. Yiztchak does not go forth, pioneer or begin anything. He endures, maintains, and continues. This is his atrribute and its corollary is the service of God through yir'ah, through awe. Yitzchak related to the Holy One through overpowering awe and humility.

Ya'akov represents the attribute of emet, or truth. It is not until the third patriarch that we can see the whole picture, that we can understand the totality and balance of Truth. To understand truth takes time, perspective, context. Ya'akov balances the extremes of Avraham and Yitzchak and discovers the middle ground. Like a mixture of two colors (blue+red=green) or sounds (piano keys)[2], the mixture has aspects of each individual component, but finds a harmony and identity of its own. Ya'akov's mode of serving God is sometimes called tiferet, splendor or beauty. It represents beauty in the mixture of opposites.

Ya'akov creates balance. It is this balance that makes our fore-fathers contribution a lasting one. A life of pure kindness and love is unsustainable and a life of awe and fear is unsustainable, but a life that combines them into a balanced whole is a life that endures. Ya'akov, the final father, is the one who ties the pieces together. This is how the Nesivos Shalom (Rebbe of the Slonimer Chassidim) interprets the verse from Proverbs (12:19): "The language of truth (s'fas emes) will be established forever." What we MEAN by living a life of truth is one that is balanced between love and awe, ahava and yir'a.

The S'fas Emes (R. Yehuda Leib Alter, a Rebbe of the Gerrer chassidim, who took his nom de plume from the verse above) sees in this process another spiritual life lesson: in building a spiritual life, a person will usually begin with ahava, with the love and sheer excitement of being Jewish, doing mitzvot and building a relationship with Hashem. However, the stage of ahava must be followed by yir'a, a discipline and submission to living a Jewish life even when it's not exciting or new, a consistency. Often, people will become stuck in their religious life at this point and feel like they are trapped, either in the free-wheeling love of being Jewish or the exhausting rigor of observance. It is only then that they can emerge into the third and final stage in which they learn to balance ahava and yir'ah, to reach a point where love and excitement merge with disicpline and consistency. May we all progress to the point whwere we can achieve this balance in our lives as well. Shabbat shalom!


[1] Chazal stands for chachameinu (our sages), zichronam (may their memory) livracha (be for a blessing.)

[2] Actually, the three notes of a chord have a similar relationship to the avot, with the third note balancing out the other two.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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