The Uniqueness of Avraham

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Dor Goldenberg

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

The God of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov

 

The Amida prayer opens with a blessing of "Our God and God of our fathers; God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak, and God of Yaakov." The reason for the mention of "our God and God of our fathers" is clear: the covenant begins with our forefathers and continues with the Jewish nation through all generations. Less clear is why we make mention of each of the forefathers individually. What special uniqueness pertains to each one of the forefathers, requiring that we note each separately?

 

A similar question arises from God's words to Moshe from the midst of the burning bush:

 

"He said, I am the God of your father, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Yaakov. And Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God…

 

And God said further to Moshe, 'So shall you say to Bnei Yisrael: The Lord God of your fathers – the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Yaakov – has sent me to you. This is My Name forever, and this is My memorial for all generations.

 

Go and gather the elders of Israel, and say to them: The Lord God of your fathers appeared to me – the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov – saying, I have surely remembered you and what is being done to you in Egypt." (Shemot 3:6, 15-16)

 

Why are the three forefathers mentioned individually every time? Why is it not enough to mention them collectively?

 

Different attributes express themselves in each of the forefathers; each forefather teaches us different qualities and aspects of conduct.

 

In addition, there seems to be a dimension in which each of the forefathers represents an additional, different layer in the edifice of Knesset Yisrael. Each of the forefathers faced the choice of whether to join the path. For Avraham, the choice was clear. It was he who initiated the search and quest for God. He had the choice of following this path or remaining like the other idolaters around him. Yitzchak and Yaakov faced a similar choice. Yishmael, Avraham's son, did not choose his father's path. Likewise, Esav, Yitzchak's son, went in a different direction. Thus, the choice was in the hands of each of the forefathers; each independently chose the path of God. Hence it is clear why each of them is mentioned separately at the beginning of the Amida: each of the forefathers made his own, individual, deliberate choice to follow God's path. The path was not a well-worn one that was ready for them and in which they could simply "go with the flow." It required a positive, active choice; it was they, in fact, who paved the path. We therefore emphasize each of them individually.

 

The God of Avraham

 

Having explained why all three forefathers are mentioned separately at the beginning of the Amida, we must still ask why, at the conclusion of the blessing, we mention Avraham alone. If it were merely a matter of brevity, the blessing could have concluded with the words, "the Shield of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov." Since only Avraham is mentioned, there must be some trait that is unique to him among the forefathers. Indeed, we read in Pesachim (117b):

 

"Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: 'And I shall make you into a great nation' – corresponding to this promise we say, 'The God of Avraham'; 'and I will bless you' – corresponding to this we say, 'the God of Yitzchak'; 'And I shall make your name great' – corresponding to this we say, 'the God of Yaakov.' One might therefore suggest that the blessing should conclude with the mention of all three. However, God also tells Avraham, 'And you shall be a blessing' – 'they will conclude the blessing with you,’ not with all the forefathers."

 

What is it that sets Avraham apart from Yitzchak and Yaakov?

 

Avraham is unique in that his life's mission is of a dual character: he is building a nation, on the one hand, while at the same time appealing to the entire world, on the other.

 

Avraham is the founder of the nation; it is he who starts laying the foundations for Knesset Yisrael; he is the vanguard. He has a responsibility towards Knesset Yisrael, and this is integral to Avraham's perception of his role. He recognizes his task of building up a household that will follow his path, performing righteousness and justice. This role is critical and fundamental to Avraham's thinking and his conduct.

 

At the same time, he does not abandon his responsibility towards the other nations. A well-known midrash, commenting on the words, 'And the souls they had made in Charan,’ teaches, "These are the proselytes" (Bereishit Rabba, Vayeshev 84). Avraham is aware of his responsibility towards the entire world. He knows that he must spread his message of God's Oneness, of God's vision for the world, to all the nations. God blesses him and tells him, "All the families of the earth will be blessed through you" (Bereishit 12:3), and Avraham upholds this blessing and carries it with him as his obligation.

 

This is the difference between Avraham and the other forefathers. While Avraham's role involved both establishing his own household and being outwardly-oriented, the task of Yitzchak and of Yaakov is limited to establishing, maintaining and continuing the edifice whose foundations have already been laid. When we start our prayer by mentioning all three forefathers, we proceed from this dimension of building the edifice. We start our prayer from the inside, from within the home, the House of Israel. We conclude, however, with Avraham alone – the Avraham who welcomed and encouraged proselytes, the Avraham who was outwardly-oriented.

 

Maintaining Avraham's Path

 

Today there are people who do not adopt Avraham's dual path. There is one approach that forgoes his responsibility as founder of the nation of Israel. Those who follow this approach uphold only the ideals of internationalism and heterogeneity. They do not recognize Knesset Yisrael as an independent, autonomous body with roots, with its own essence and its own unique role in the world. For them, only universalism is important, and they want Jews to be a nation like all others. In their view, our orientation should be only outward, towards the rest of the world; there is no room for an inwardly-turning Jewish spirit.

 

On the other hand, there is an approach that adopts the opposite view, eschewing the importance of appealing to the nations. They believe "There is nothing but us." The entire role, essence, mission and vitality of Knesset Yisrael, to their view, concerns Jews alone. We have no business looking outwards and spreading our messages; it is inappropriate to publicize our message to the world.

 

Neither approach is faithful to the path of Avraham. Avraham went about spreading his message to the entire world, while at the same time working on building up the House of Israel. He was converting people to belief in One God, while at the same time passing on his path to Yitzchak, and from him on to Yaakov. His engagement in one realm in no way diminished his commitment to and activity in the other.

 

We, as the children and disciples of Avraham, aspire to follow his path. We must constantly align ourselves in the direction of both of these great aims. We must not forgo our part in Knesset Yisrael, nor forget our responsibility towards the rest of the world.

 

"And you shall be a blessing" – (for this reason) "they will conclude the blessing with you, not with all the forefathers."

 

 

 

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Lekh Lekha 5772 [2011].)