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08/07/2020 11:53:10 AM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

Inherit and Create

08/07/2020 10:00:37 AM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

As Bnei Yisrael are about to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe presents a biting critique of their spiritual state. 

שְׁמַ֣ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אַתָּ֨ה עֹבֵ֤ר הַיּוֹם֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן לָבֹא֙ לָרֶ֣שֶׁת גּוֹיִ֔ם גְּדֹלִ֥ים וַעֲצֻמִ֖ים מִמֶּ֑ךָּ עָרִ֛ים גְּדֹלֹ֥ת וּבְצֻרֹ֖ת בַּשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and more populous than you: great cities with walls sky-high; (Deut. 9:1)

Do not think, Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael, that they will inherit the Holy Land on the merit of their good behaviour. No! If that were the measure, Bnei Yisrael would enter the land. Rather, Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael that it is only due to the evil of the current inhabitants and because God promised Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov that their descendents would inherit the land, that Bnei Yisrael would cross the Jordan River. 

לֹ֣א בְצִדְקָתְךָ֗ וּבְיֹ֙שֶׁר֙ לְבָ֣בְךָ֔ אַתָּ֥ה בָ֖א לָרֶ֣שֶׁת אֶת־אַרְצָ֑ם כִּ֞י בְּרִשְׁעַ֣ת ׀ הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָאֵ֗לֶּה יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ מוֹרִישָׁ֣ם מִפָּנֶ֔יךָ וּלְמַ֜עַן הָקִ֣ים אֶת־הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֤ע יְהוָה֙ לַאֲבֹתֶ֔יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹֽב׃

“It is not because of your virtues and your rectitude that you will be able to possess their country; but it is because of their wickedness that the LORD your God is dispossessing those nations before you, and in order to fulfill the oath that the LORD made to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (Deut. 9:5)

Zechut Avot / Brit Avot  - enjoying a favored position based on the merit of our forefather or the covenant made between them and God is powerful. As we see in this week’s parsha, it has the capacity to overcome negative behavior. Even as Moshe reminds the Jewish people of their misdeeds, they will, despite that, gain entry to the land.

וְיָדַעְתָּ֗ כִּ֠י לֹ֤א בְצִדְקָֽתְךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱ֠לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵ֨ן לְךָ֜ אֶת־הָאָ֧רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֛ה הַזֹּ֖את לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ כִּ֥י עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹ֖רֶף אָֽתָּה׃

“Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiffnecked people.” (Deut. 9:6)

There is an interesting discussion as to whether or not the merit of our forefathers (Zechut Avot) has expired or not (see Tosafot to Shabbat 55a, U’Shmuel). Be that as it may, there is universal agreement that some type privilege remains based on God’s relationship with our forefathers.

The most prominent place that we recall the merit of our forefathers is at the beginning of the Amidah. 

אֱלהֵי אַבְרָהָם, אֱלהֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלהֵי יַעֲקב.

God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob”

 וְזוכֵר חַסְדֵּי אָבות. וּמֵבִיא גואֵל לִבְנֵי בְנֵיהֶם לְמַעַן שְׁמו בְּאַהֲבָה

“Who remembers the good deeds of the fathers, and brings a redeemer to their children, in love and for the sake of His name.”

According to the Rashba (Responsa Vol I #423) , the reason we mention our forefathers at the beginning of our supplications to God in order to evoke God’s compassion. 

Despite the power of Zechut Avot / Brit Avot, we must ask, is it enough. 

Thought experiment - Let’s say that there is “enough” merit in our spiritual bank account to carry us, should we settle for that, or is there more. 

Ironically, the suggestion that we need more, comes from the very blessing from where the idea of Zechut Avot is introduced, the first blessing of the Amidah. 

As we saw, the merit of the forefathers is mentioned in that blessing, yet there is a counter issue at play. Many have asked about the unique language of the liturgy in that blessing.

The blessing says:

אֱלהֵי אַבְרָהָם. אֱלהֵי יִצְחָק. וֵאלהֵי יַעֲקב.

God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob

Why not, simply say God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even if we wish to mention their merit, why include the terms “God of” for each of the forefathers?

Rabbi Meir Eisenstadt, in his collection of responsa (Panim Me’eirot Vol 1: 39), is one of the many who ask this question. His answer is instructive and inspirational.

He quotes instructions that King David gave to his son Shlomo.

וְאַתָּ֣ה שְׁלֹמֹֽה־בְנִ֡י דַּע֩ אֶת־אֱלֹהֵ֨י אָבִ֜יךָ וְעָבְדֵ֗הוּ 

“And you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him” (Chron. I 28:9). 

Focusing on the word “ דַּע֩” - “know”, Rabbi Eisenstadt notes that one “mustn't believe in God based on the practices of their ancestors...rather [belief in God is} based on investigation based on the Torah...That is why David said “know”, as knowledge is based on study...if we were to say God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (without the word God in front of Isaac and Jacob), we may have been left with the impression that Abraham was the the first to investigate, while Isaac and Jacob based their faith on Abraham’s  faith. Therefore, we say God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God Jacob to make known that each of them investigated on their own and concluded that there is only one God. Such an approach strengthens our holy faith.”

This is really a remarkable statement. 

Mesora - tradition -  has always been a hallmark of Judaism. We declare proudly

 תּוֹרָ֥ה צִוָּה־לָ֖נוּ מֹשֶׁ֑ה מוֹרָשָׁ֖ה קְהִלַּ֥ת יַעֲקֹֽב׃

The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Yaakov. (Deut. 33:4).

Yet, Rabbi Eisenstadt teaches us that that is not enough. The merit of the faith of others must be augmented.  We must cherish what we inherit from our parents and grandparents, but we are obligated to strengthen our faith and understanding of our tradition using our own faculties and abilities. 

We see that the first blessing of the Amidah provides the ingredients for a robust Jewish life. In that blessing, we proclaim the merits of our ancestors in the hope they will convince  God to look upon us with grace and favor. We also know that we must, in addition to relying on Zechut Avot, forge our own path.  

In the case of Bnei Yisrael entering the Land of Israel, according to what we read in this week’s Parsha, all they had was the merit of their ancestors (and the evilness of the current inhabitants) to carry them. As the verses express, this is far from the ideal situation. In a better scenario, Bnei Yisrael would have merited entering into the land baseid on their deeds and accomplishments.

This Is a great religious challenge. It is not easy to forge our own path, but we must. 

The question is,  how do we take responsibility for our spiritual lives.

We have a dual task to cherish what we have inherited and to study and investigate our faith to the best of our abilities until we can recognize that we have forged a unique path. 

This has always been our way. The greatest accomplishments in Torah study and investigation have come from those who stood on the shoulders of giants and built on what came before them.

Consider this: Rashi’s commentary on the Torah did not signal the end of Torah commentary.  Others wrote and others after them, each one building on what came before them. So it is in the world of Talmud and Halacha. 

As Rabbi Eisenstadt put it in his answer to the question, the way to build our own faith is by studying our Torah. Spending time studying Torah gives us a foothold in our tradition and helps build understanding and commitment. 

As we make our way towards the Yamim Noraim (the High Holidays), this is the time to be thinking about our spiritual path. 

What has been left for us and what can we create on our own.

May this be a shabbat of appreciating what we have inherited and committing to what we can create.

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781