By Rabbi Aron Tendler
There appears to be three events that had to happen before Sarah could give
birth to Yitzchak in next week's Parsha:
1. The names Avram and Sarai had to be changed to Avraham and Sara.
2. Avraham had to have a Bris Milah (circumcision).
3. Avraham and Sarah had to engage in the Chesed (kindness) of welcoming
the "Three Angels" into their home.
The first two events tangibly changed Avraham and Sara from who they were
to who they became. The third event, welcoming the "Three Angels," was not
a tangible change in the beings of Avraham and Sarah; instead, it was a
qualitative change in how they did Chesed. It reflected the profound
changes that the first two tangible events had on the souls of Avraham and
Do physical, environmental, and or social changes affect the essence of our
souls? Are the changes that take place "in our souls" passed on to our
Intelligent people understand that the nature vs. nurture debate is at best
academic. Practically speaking, external and genetic factors profoundly
affect an individual's thinking and behavior. However, do the external
changes affect the essence of the soul, or does the soul remain as pure and
pristine as it was? Can external factors affect the genetic orientation of
a person's personality?
The verse in Tehilim (61:12), "G-d, create in me a pure heart."" is
followed by the statement, "and G-d, renew in me a steadfast spirit." It is
important to define the terms "heart" and "spirit."
The commentaries, (Ibin Ezra, Metzudos Tzion and Dovid) do not distinguish
between the pure heart and the steadfast spirit. They understand the verse
as King David's stirring supplication for Divine aid in combating the Evil
Inclination. However, that does not restrict us from seeking further
Among the first essays published in Rav Dessler's 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 explains the fundamental principle of "Zechus Avos - The merits of
(The reason I call Zechus Avos a fundamental principle is because much of
our relationship with G-d is predicated on the merits of our ancestors
since Avraham and Sarah until this day. Israel is ours because starting in
this Parsha G-d promised "the land" to the Avos and the Imahos. Our Amidah
(silent Tefilah) begins by referencing the Avos. Many of the Tefilos
recited during Selichos and the Yomim Noraim make direct reference to the
merits of our Forefathers. We are told that the greatest Tana, the famed
Rabbi Akiva, was never appointed Supreme Justice of the Sanhedrin because
his ancestry stemmed from converts to Judaism. As such, he was no less the
Jew; however, when assuming the office of Supreme Justice of the Sanhedrin
no one person can expect to successfully lead the Jewish people without the
added support of the Zechus Avos stretching back to Avraham, Yitzchak, and
Rav Dessler explains that the benefit of Zechus Avos is not that we are the
recipients of G-d's favoritism because we are the children of the Avos and
Imahos. True, Hashem really loved the Avos and the Imahos more so than
anyone else! As the Verse in this week's Haftorah (Yishayah 41:8) states,
"My servant Yakov, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Avraham, who
loved Me." However, nepotism, partiality, and preferential treatment are
not the ways of G-d's justice. The Zechus Avos that are so profoundly
important to our relationship with G-d are the unique Midos
(characteristics), spiritual strengths, and abilities that we inherited
from our ancestors.
Rav Dessler references the Medrashik story of Avraham being thrown into the
fiery furnace. Rav Dessler points out that throughout history our nation
has proven its ability to die "Al Kiddush Hashem (for the sanctification of
G-d)." Even Jews who are distant from daily observances and Mitzvos have
found the inner strength and fortitude to accept death rather than deny G-d
or His Torah. Where does that spiritual strength and courage come from? We
can understand that a person with the singular determination and belief of
Avraham would be willing to "be thrown into the fiery furnace;" however,
why should someone without the years of belief, love, and practice be
willing to die for G-d?
Rav Dessler explains that the innate ability to make that ultimate
sacrifice was imprinted in the spiritual psyche of the Jewish nation by the
actions of Avraham Avinu. The same is true with the Akeida as well as with
all the many moments of supreme sacrifice and devotion performed by the
generations preceding us. Those are the Zechus Avos that make us who and
what we are. Those are the fundamental building blocks of our nation and
individual spiritual personalities.
When we pull out the "Zechus Avos card" we are not asking for favoritism or
special treatment. We are reminding G-d and ourselves that it is worthwhile
for G-d to grant us another chance (Teshuvah) because who we are and what
we are is the stuff of our Avos and Imahos. Reinvesting in us is a
reinvestment in the basic goodness that we inherited from Avraham,
Yitzchak, and Yakov.
The "pure heart" that King David prayed for was the Zechus Avos granted to
all the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov. The renewal of a
"steadfast spirit" was King David requesting Divine help in using those
special merits to better serve G-d and his nation.
Before Avram and Sarai could give birth to the next generation of Jews G-d
had to make sure that they possessed the necessary spiritual merits to pass
on to their children. G-d knew that those merits would be the salvation and
redemption of the Jews throughout history. Without them, the nation would
be lost. Therefore, G-d insisted on three events before the conception of
G-d first changed Avraham's name from Avram to Avraham. By adding the
letter "Hay" to his name G-d converted Avraham's soul to be the progenitor
of "many nations." It was this "change" that allows all subsequent converts
to Judaism to associate themselves with Avraham and Sarah. Through the
conversion process they "become like a newborn child." (See Rambam, Bikurim
1:4) The name Avraham reflected his spiritual readiness to assume the role
of Father Of The Nation. As such he was altered in a way that allowed for
his spiritual strength and greatness to be genetically transmitted to his
son Yitzchak and all the many generations that would follow.
G-d then changed Avraham physically. Just as there was a spiritual change
in Avraham so too there had to be a physical one as well. Just as spiritual
change and growth demands willful desire and work on the part of the
individual to change and grow, so too the physical changes must be done by
the willful act of an individual. If the father is devoted to the spiritual
growth of his son the father will make sure that his son is circumcised.
However, if the father does not do the Mitzvah for his son, the son will
have to take care of it when he becomes and adult.
Sarai's name was then changed to Sarah to reflect her spiritual readiness
in assuming the role of Mother Of The Nation. As such she was altered in a
way that allowed for her spiritual strength and greatness to be genetically
transmitted to her son Yitzchak and all the many generations that would follow.
Lastly, G-d created the setting wherein which Avraham and Sarah would put
into practice their newfound spiritual strength and greatness. The setting
would involve kindness to three angels, the destiny of a family, the
creation of a nation, and the future of the world.
(To be continued.)
Copyright © 2003 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.