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The Legacy of the Forefathers

The Ramban calls Sefer Bereishis “The Book of Creation,” since it begins with a description of the world’s creation, and continues with the lives of our Forefathers who “created” the patterns that their descendants were destined to follow.[1]  Our Forefathers’ mitzvos and good deeds were not intended for their own spiritual benefit, or even for the benefit of their generation, but for the benefit of the entire world for all generations to come.  By standing strong in the face of their many challenges, they created a precedent that helps us overcome our own hardships.

Just as their mitzvos serve as an eternal merit for their descendants, their minor flaws also brought cataclysmic consequences.  For example, Avraham gave Avimelech seven sheep when they made a pact never to harm one another.  The Midrash derides him for doing so without Hashem’s consent:

 

אמר לו הקב”ה אתה נתת שבע כבשות בלי רצוני, חייך שאני משהה בשמחת בניך ז’ דורות, אתה נתת לו ז’ כבשות בלי רצוני חייך כנגד כן הורגים מבניך שבעה צדיקים ואלו הן, חפני, ופנחס, ושמשון, ושאול וג’ בניו, אתה נתת לו ז’ כבשות בלי רצוני, כנגד כן בניו מחריבין מבניך ז’ משכנות ואלו הן, אוהל מועד וגלגל, נוב, וגבעון, ושילה, ובית עולמים תרין.

 

Hashem said to Avraham, “You gave him seven sheep without My consent;  by your life I swear to postpone the joy of your descendants (Kabbalas HaTorah) for seven generations.   You gave him seven sheep without My consent,  by your life I swear that his descendants will slay seven tzaddikim from yours – Chofni, Pinchas, Shimshon, Shaul, and Shaul’s three sons.  You gave him seven sheep without My consent; by your life I swear that his descendants will destroy the seven sanctuaries of your descendants – the Ohel Moed, Gilgal, Nov, Givon, Shilo, and the two Batei HaMikdash.”[2]

 

Kabbalas HaTorah, the very purpose for the world’s existence, could have occurred in Avraham’s time, yet it was postponed for seven generations; and the seven dwelling places of the Shechinah were destroyed; all because of Avraham’s seemingly minor indiscretion in making a pact with Avimelech.  The Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu adds that the nations of the world were given permission to oppress us for thousands of years, as a result of the pact that Avraham made with them.[3]  Furthermore, the Ramban writes that as punishment for Sarah having oppressed Hagar, Hagar’s descendants afflict Sarah’s for hundreds of years.[4]

These examples illustrate the perfection that Hashem expects of the righteous, such that even a hairsbreadth of error is brought to judgment.  Although Avraham and Sarah were not guilty of any actual sin, they did not meet the exemplary standards expected of them.  Consequently, their descendants suffered untold suffering over the course of many generations.

Hashem rewards on a scale five hundred times greater than that with which He punishes.[5]  Furthermore, for every minor failing of our Forefathers, they had countless tremendous mitzvos to their credit.  Therefore, we can only imagine the great reward that is apportioned to their descendants in their merit.  From their great achievements, we draw the strength necessary to persevere through our own difficulties, for all generations to come.

When Chananya, Mishael and Azarya allowed themselves to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than bow to an idol, Hashem said to His ministering angels, “Descend and kiss the lips of their Forefathers.  Just as the fathers served Me in fire, so did the sons.”[6]

When Avraham Avinu braved death in the fiery furnace of Ur Kasdim for the sake of Hashem’s holy Name; and when Yitzchak stretched out his neck to be slaughtered on Har HaMoriah; they instilled in our nation for all subsequent generations the fortitude to sacrifice our lives for Hashem’s sake, time and time again.

Chana’s seven sons were killed for refusing to worship Greek idols.  Before her youngest son’s execution, she bade him to ascend to Heaven and tell Avraham Avinu that he bound only one son on the altar as a korban for Hashem, but she bound seven.[7]  Did Chana really intend to compete with Avraham Avinu?  Did she take pride in outdoing our illustrious Forefather?  Rather, she meant to tell him that his example gave her the strength to endure her difficult trial.

So too, throughout the generations, in our long and bitter trek through Golus, we draw courage from the righteous deeds of our foregathers.  They planted in our hearts the strength to stand firm in the face of adversity, and remain loyal to Hashem.

 

2

The Foundations of Holiness

 

Each of the Avos had his own unique role in preparing the foundations of holiness upon which the House of Israel was destined to be built. Avraham sanctified the Land of Israel.  Hashem told him: “Rise and walk the length and breadth of the land, for I shall give it to you.”[8]  The Gemara explains that by walking across the Land of Israel, Avraham created a precedent of ownership, which made it easier for his descendants to conquer the land many generations later.[9]

Yitzchak sanctified the site of the Beis HaMikdash.  By allowing himself to be sacrificed on Har HaMoriah, he instilled it with tremendous holiness, preparing it for the construction of the Beis HaMikdash.  Even after the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, its location remains the portal through which the prayers of Israel from all over the world ascend to Heaven.

Yaakov prepared the path for our nation to travel in exile.  By serving Hashem faithfully despite all his hardships and wanderings, he created a pool of merit to ensure our survival in Golus and our ultimate Redemption.  Yaakov instituted the nighttime Maariv prayer.[10]  The Chassidic texts interpret this to mean that he prayed for the welfare of Bnei Yisrael in the dark night of Golus.

As Yaakov and his sons prepared to descend to Egypt, Hashem appeared to him in a vision of the night and said, “Do not fear your descent to Egypt…  I shall descend with you to Egypt, and I shall bring you back and ascend together with you.”[11]  The Meshech Chochma writes:

 

“ויאמר אלקים לישראל במראות הלילה.”  הנה אצל אברהם ויצחק לא מצאנו זה רק ביעקב כאן ובויצא היינו מפני שהיה מוכן לצאת לחו”ל לגור לכן בא אליו התגלות אלקות בלילה להראות שאף בלילה בחשכת הגלות שורה שכינה בישראל כמו שאמרו  גלו לבבל שכינה עמהם. … ולזה אמר “יענך ה’ ביום צרה ישגבך שם אלקי יעקב” שבזמן שהם בצרה ובחשכת לילה ישגבך אלקי יעקב שנגלה אליו בלילה ודו”ק.

 

 

“G‑d spoke to Yisrael in a vision of the night.”  This expression is never used anywhere in the Torah in regard to Avraham or Yitzchak.  Yaakov alone received a “vision of the night” as he descended from Eretz Yisrael to sojourn abroad.  Hashem then revealed Himself to Yaakov at night, signifying that even in the dark night of exile, the Shechina would remain with Bnei Yisrael, as our Sages teach: “When they were exiled to Babylon, the Shechinah traveled with them.”[12]  … David HaMelech prayed, “May Hashem answer you on the day of affliction; may the Name of the G‑d of Yaakov support you.”[13]  When darkness and suffering would befall Bnei Yisrael, Hashem would remain by their side to protect them, as He remained with Yaakov in the dark night of his own exile.[14]

 

3

Yaakov’s Three-fold Trial

 

When Yaakov was asked to send his son Binyamin down to Egypt, he said:

 

אתי שכלתם יוסף איננו ושמעון איננו ואת בנימן תקחו עלי היו כלנה

 

 

“You have bereaved me.  Yosef is gone.  Shimon is gone.  And Binyamin you wish to take?  All this has befallen me!”[15]

 

The word עלי is also found in this week’s parsha, when Yaakov hesitates to deceive his father, lest he be cursed as a result, but Rivka assures him עלי קללתך בני “Your curse is upon me, my son.”[16]  The Vilna Gaon explains that עלי is an acronym for עשיו לבן יוסף (Eisav, Lavan, Yosef).  Rivka warned him that these three trials had already been decreed by Heaven.  He need not fear the curse of his father, since his suffering had already been ordained.[17]

Later, when Yaakov complained עלי “All this has befallen me”, he meant to say that he had already born the three phases of his suffering, and had not expected this last tragedy to occur.  (In truth, Binyamin’s descend to Egypt was no tragedy at all, but the first rays of hope for Yaakov’s reunion with Yosef).

Yaakov’s three difficulties parallel the difficulties Bnei Yisrael face in Golus.  Eisav sought to murder Yaakov.  He represents adversaries such as Haman, who wish to destroy the entire Jewish nation, regardless of our religious beliefs.  Lavan represents adversaries such as the Greeks, who tried to force their pagan cultures upon us.  When he accosted Yaakov and said, “The daughters are my daughters, the sons are my sons, and the sheep (a reference to the six hundred thousand souls of Israel) are my sheep”[18], he tried to claim Yaakov’s children as the heirs of his own idolatrous beliefs.[19]

Hashem has rescued us from both kinds of adversaries, but the third and most dangerous challenge is that of internal strife, represented by Yosef’s conflict with his brothers.  Unwarranted hatred between Jews destroyed the Beis HaMikdash and delays our Redemption.

Our own generation has faced all three challenges.  Hitler sought to destroy our entire nation, regardless of our beliefs.  The Communists sought to destroy religious observance. However, the most difficult blow has been the strife and dissent that plagues our nation.  This plague has been our own doing, and it is within our hands to undo it, by treating one another with patience and understanding, and by spreading love and brotherhood within our communities, and from one community to the next.

The Midrash states:

 

רבי אומר גדול השלום שאפילו ישראל עובדים עבודת כוכבים ושלום ביניהם אמר המקום כביכול איני יכול לשלוט בהן כיון ששלום ביניהם, שנאמר “חבור עצבים אפרים הנח לו”, אבל משנחלקו מה הוא אומר  “חלק לבם עתה יאשמו.” הא למדת גדול השלום ושנואה המחלוקת.

 

Rebbe (Yehuda HaNassi) taught: Peace is so important, that even if Bnei Yisrael were to worship idols, but there would be peace among them, Hashem could not punish them (so to speak) since the peace among them would protect them, as the verse states: “Ephraim is united in their idolatry.  Let them be!”

However, when there is strife among them, the verse states, “Their hearts are divided, now they shall bear their guilt.”[20]  From here we see how important is peace, and how detested is controversy.[21]

 

May Hashem place love and understanding in our hearts, that we may treat one another with the kindness and sensitivity we all deserve.  May we all live to see the coming of the Righteous Redeemer soon and in our days.

 


[1] Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, introduction to Sefer Shemos

[2] Bereishis Rabbah 54:4

[3] Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu Rabbah ch. 8

[4] Ramban, Bereishis 16:10

[5] Sotah 11a, Sanhedrin 100b

[6] Shir HaShirim Rabbah 7:1

[7] Gittin 57b

[8] Bereishis 13:17

[9] Bava Basra 100a

[10] Berachos 26b

[11] Bereishis 46:2-4

[12] Megillah 29

[13] Tehillim 20:2

[14] See Minchas Asher, Parshas Vayeira: “The Prayers of our Forefathers

[15] Bereishis 42:36

[16] Bereishis 27:13

[17] Cited in Teshuvos Zayis Ra’anan end of volume 2

[18] Bereishis 31:43

[19] R’ Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, Dover Tzedek, Ki Savo 1

[20] Hosheia 10:2

[21] Bereishis Rabbah 38:6

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