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The Spiritual Heritage of Bnei Yisroel

Yaakov left Beer Sheva and made his way to Charan.  He stopped on the way and received a prophetic vision.  The pasuk tells us, “Vehinei Hashem nitzav alav… ani Hashem Eloikai Avraham avicha vElokai Yitzchock – and behold Hashem was standing over him, … I am the Hashem the G-d of your father Avraham and the G-d of Yitzchok”.

The Baal HaTurim (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher) asks why the word avicha (your father) does not appear next to the word Yitzchok who was Yaakov’s father. Instead, Yaakov’s grandfather, Avraham, is referred to as “your father”.

The Berditchiver Rav (1740-1810), in his sefer, Kedushas Levi, answers: Avraham Avinu left Eretz Yisroel and descended to Mitzraim.  Yitzchok Avinu had been expressly forbidden to leave the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael (see Bereishis Rabbah 64:3); he was never in galus (exile).  Avraham’s grandson, Yaakov, walks in his footsteps, leaving the Holy Land, and going into galus.  In this context, it is appropriate that the title “avicha” be accorded solely to Avraham.

The words of the holy Berditchiver Rav might be interpreted further as follows:

Among the first essays published in Rav Dessler’s (1892 -1953) Michtav M’Eliyahu is a lengthy discourse on the relationship between justice and mercy.  In the course of explaining how justice and mercy are not mutually exclusive, Rav Dessler ponders the appropriate application of “zechus avos” – the merits of our Forefathers.  The concept seems to contradict the rule that Hashem will not reward someone for the merits of his ancestors. We were placed in this world to improve ourselves and achieve spiritual perfection.  So why should we be rewarded for mitzvos performed by our ancestors?  Even though Hashem expressed his love for the Avos and the Imahos, as the pasuk (Yishayah 41:8) states, “My servant Yaakov, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Avraham who loved Me”, nonetheless, how can we reconcile Hashem showing preferential treatment to Bnei Yirsroel with His perfect justice?

Rav Dessler answers by re-interpreting the concept of zechus avos.  Instead of reading zechus avos as “the merits of our fathers” it should be understood as “zacus avos” – the purity of our fathers.  As Rav Dessler explains, the Avos implanted certain traits and qualities into Bnei Yisoel. Avraham Avinu implanted the traits of being gomlei chesed, the performance of bris milah even under extremely difficult circumstances, our connection and desire to dwell in Eretz Yisrael, and mesiras nefesh – our willingness to give our lives away for the sanctification of Hashem’s name.

Yitzchok Avinu established a connection to prayer and acted with even more mesiras nefesh than his father.  And Yaakov Avinu implanted a connection to Torah.  Even Jews who are distant from daily observances and mitzvos have found the inner strength and fortitude to practice chesed, give their children bris milah, and have some connection to prayer. This comes to us through the strength of the inheritance we received from our Avos.  Therefore, says Rav Dessler, zechus avos does not mean that we are simply rewarded for the mitzvos which our ancestors performed, but we are essentially tapping into the unique midos (emotional characteristics), spiritual strengths and abilities that we inherited from them.

When we ask Hashem to have mercy on us because of “zechus Avos” we are not asking Him for favoritism or special treatment. We are beseeching Him to grant us another chance (teshuvah) because we are, in essence, the same as our Avos and Imahos. With Hashem’s grace we can better ourselves because we are endowed with the good and lofty character traits that we inherited from Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov.

This then is also the explanation of the words of the Berditchiver Rav.  By Hashem telling Yaakov, “I am Hashem, G-d of your father Avraham who also went out of Eretz Yisroel,” he is saying that this strength – with which Avraham withstood the nisayon (test) of going into exile from Eretz Yisroel – will be with you as well because he is your father in this specific test.  Yitzchock never left Eretz Yisroel, so Yaakov lacked zechus avos from him in this regard, therefore the fact that Yitzchok was the father of Yaakov is not mentioned here.

Apart from what we gain from understanding the source of the great spiritual strength of Hashem’s chosen people, what other lesson might we learn that we can apply in our daily lives?

Chazal tell us (Tana D’bei Eliyahu 25) that each person is obligated to ask himself, “When will my deeds reach those of my ancestors Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov”?  My ancestor, Reb Asher of Stolin (1760-1828), had a novel explanation of the words “masai yagi-u” (when will they reach). He said “yagi-u” is from the root word “negiah”, touching, hence it can be read, “When will my deeds touch those of my ancestors Avraham, Yitzchock and Yaakov.”  According to the Great Stoliner, our aspiration is to at least touch the greatness of our ancestors. To actually be like them is far more than we can hope to achieve.

Rabbi Yissachar Ber of Zolynia (1920-2008) explains that in order for one thing to touch another there can be nothing separating them. Therefore he explains that when we ask, “When will our deeds touch those of our ancestors Avraham, Yitzchock and Yaakov”, we mean to say that we should not cause a separation between us and our forefathers through our deeds. If we do not cause a separation between us and our ancestors – a Mesech Hamavdil (a dividing curtain) or a timtum Haleiv (a tainted heart) – then we will have zechus avos and the purity of their character which is our spiritual legacy.

By nature we are the spiritual heirs of the character of our forefathers. We must, however, take care that we do not lose “touch” with the Holy Avos by our actions.