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FAREWELL TO THE PATRIARCHS

Roy Neuberger - Jan. 09, 2015


This week we say “goodbye” to the Patriarchs. “When Jacob finished instructing his sons, he drew his feet onto the bed; he expired and was gathered to his people.” (Genesis 49:33)


“Ma’ase Avos siman l’banim!” - “The deeds of the forefathers are a sign for the children!”

Now that the Patriarchs have left us, who will give us “simanim” - signs - to guide us through this world? Many great people have led the Jewish People, but it is only about the Patriarchs that we say they have left us “simanim”. A father has a unique relationship with his child. A father’s life – if he fulfills his role – is dedicated to leaving his child a path for the future, to guide him even after the father is gone. There is no one like a father.

This relationship is expressed in the Torah portion Vayigash, when Judah states, concerning his father and Benjamin, “his soul is bound up with his soul.” (Genesis 44:30) The souls of father and son are bound up one with the other. That is what made the binding of Isaac the most excruciating trial for Abraham.

One of our most moving prayers is Avinu Malkeinu - Our Father, Our King - during which we cry out to G-d! Do you know why it is so moving? One reason is that we speak to G-d as our “Father.” He is “King” to the entire world, but to us He is also “Father!” On the basis of this unique relationship, we speak to Him from the depth of our soul!

And now our father Jacob is leaving us. Yes, Moses comes upon the stage next week, but Moses is also a son to the Patriarchs. Our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are gone. How will we go on without them?

The Talmud in tractate Shabbos (55a) discusses if and when the merit of the forefathers expires. Nevertheless, every day, at least three times a day, we invoke that merit in the first blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh prayer. If the merit expires, why do we continually invoke it? The Additional Commentaries (Tosfos) suggest answers, but whatever the case, it is clear that the actions of the Patriarchs are still active with regard to us, their children, thousands of years after they have left the world.

We say “Elokai Abraham, Elokai Isaac v’ailokai Jacob… G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac and G-d of Jacob?” Is G-d only G-d to the Patriarchs? The Talmud in tractate Pesachim (117b) states that this language reflects the special blessings given to the Patriarchs by the Master of the Universe. The prayer continues: “v’zocher chasdei forefathers umaivai goail livnai v’naihem….” He remembers especially the kindness of the Patriarchs and sends a redeemer to their children’s children in their merit.

Why were the Patriarchs able to merit this eternal blessing? Their greatness is so exalted that the visage of our father Jacob is actually fixed on the Kisai ha Kavod, the Heavenly Throne of Glory! (Targum Yonason) What was their merit? Why is our eternal protection the “Shield of Abraham?” Why do the Patriarchs merit a blessing so strong that it remains eternally active?

My friends, in our frenetic and confused world, it is very difficult and challenging to remember the essence of life, but the first blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh prayer continually reminds us of it. It is quite understandable that this is the only blessing in Shemoneh Esreh about which the Code of Jewish Law states that one must pay attention to the words he’s praying. (Mishna Berurah adds “Modim.”)

We need special attention to this prayer for survival! We live in an age when the entire world marches to the beat of the drum of materialism, of adherence to a belief that the march of technology is the entire purpose of mankind, the sure road to the future “paradise” which the majority of mankind believes is the goal and perfection of human history.

But if this “road to paradise” were so perfect and glorious, why is this generation so terribly confused, troubled and weighted down with aimless subservience to vanity, falsehood, and immorality? My father, of blessed memory, always used to say, “Don’t have a sheep mentality.” We march without thinking, walking blindly to an unknown fate.

Our forefathers also lived in a chaotic world, but they had the unique greatness to think about their lives, to stop, to ponder, to see clearly. “Abraham recognized G-d on his own; he had no teacher…. G-d said to him, ‘You have made My Name known in the world. Upon your life, I give you possession of the heavenly and the earthly….” (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:2)

What incredible courage! The Patriarchs had the courage to stand in opposition to the spiritual pollution in the world and to see above the falsehood, understanding that G-d is L-rd of the universe. For this, G-d said, “I show gratitude only to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were the first to make me known in the world.” (Menachos 53a)

This incomparable lesson has been passed down to us. As we sail through the stormy sea of this tumultuous world, our salvation will be to remember “the deeds of the Patriarchs,” the great love of our forefathers, who guided themselves only according to the Truth that they found from Above. They looked above the chaos and found the Ribono shel Olam - the Master of the Universe, thus saving themselves, their families and their loyal children until the end of time.

May it be our merit to follow in their footsteps and see the fruition of their self-sacrifice with the coming of the Messiah and the building of the eternal Temple in the Holy City of Jerusalem, may we see it soon in our days!

 

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