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03: First Berakha - Avot

  • Rav Ezra Bick



Blessed are You, HaShem, our God and the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the great, mighty and awesome God, God most high, who repays great acts of kindness, and has made everything, and who remembers the kindness of the fathers, and brings a redeemer to the children of their children, for the sake of His name, with love. A King, who helps, and saves, and protects. Blesses are You, HaShem, protector of Abraham.


            The first berakha is called "avot" - the fathers. The forefathers are mentioned twice in this berakha; at the beginning, as part of the identification of He to whom we are praying - the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Yaakov, and at the end, in the "chatima" - "protector of Avraham." But why, you will yet ask, is the berakha CALLED "avot;" how do these references to the forefathers DEFINE this blessing?


            This question could be asked even if we did not know that the blessing is called "avot." As I pointed out at the end of the previous shiur, we shall be paying special attention to the "chatima," the conclusion of every berakha. In short, this blessing is "protector of Avraham." Why? What is the real theme of this blessing, why do we open the Shemona Esrei with it, and why is that theme specifically identified with the forefathers in general and with Avraham in particular?


            The midrash has the following to say about this berakha and the avot. God has commanded Avraham to leave his home, his birthplace, and his family and go forth to an unknown land, and has promised Avraham that "I shall make you a great nation, and I shall bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing." The midrash states (Bamidbar Raba 11, 2; cited by Rashi, Bereishit 12,2):


"I shall make you a great nation" - this is what we say, "the God of Avraham;"

"I shall bless you" - this is what we say, "the God of Isaac;"

"I shall make your name great" - this is what we say, "The God of Yaakov;"

Shall we conclude with all three? - Therefore it is written, "you shall be a blessing" - we conclude with you (Avraham) and not with all of them.


            Let us start with the concept of "av." What does it mean that Avraham is an "av," a forefather of the Jewish people? You might imagine that this indicates no more than genealogy - he was the progenitor. But if that is so, then the existence of three forefathers, Avraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is incomprehensible. The natural use of the word "father" restricts everyone to having only one. If we must refer to the avot by their family relationship with us, why not call Avraham the great-grandfather, Isaac the grandfather, and Jacob the father? And, for that matter, since not all of Abraham's and Isaac's children are Jews, why not count Abraham's father, Terach, as a forefather, and his father, and HIS father, etc.?


            I think it is obvious that the word "av" does not mean a biological father alone, an ancestor, but refers to the paradigm of the Jew, the source of Jewish spiritual personality. To say that the Jewish people had three fathers is to say that there are three different types of personalities, three different contributions which merge to form the people and the individuals in subsequent generations. In other words, there are three models.


            The first berakha is about the identity of God. In it, we simply say: We are approaching You, our God, who is our God. If we compare this to the second berakha, this becomes more obvious. The second berakha is about what God does (blows the wind, brings down rain, gives life, cures the sick, frees the imprisoned, etc.); the first is about who He is. This makes sense, especially in light of my opening shiur where I defined prayer as the service of God. First thing, before asking for something, is to introduce ourselves. Why are we here - because You are You, and I am I.


            Who is it to whom we pray? The answer is, our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What we are saying is that we have a relationship with God because we are "children," successors, the heirs, of the three forefathers. They taught us the path to God, they uncovered for us how to serve God.


            In fact, the Sages state that the avot taught us how to pray. There is an apparent disagreement in the Talmud about the source of the three daily prayers.


R. Yossi b. R. Chanina said: The prayers were instituted by the forefathers. R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: The prayers were instituted in place of the (daily) sacrifices....


Abraham instituted the morning service (shacharit), as is written:  "And Abraham arose in the morning to the place where he had stood there" (Gen. 19,27). And "standing" means "praying," as is written, "Pinchas stood and prayed." Isaac instituted the afternoon service (mincha), as is written: "Yitzchak went out to meditate ("lasuach") in the field towards evening" (24,63). To "meditate" means to pray, as is written, "A prayer of the poor man when he wraps himself and before God he pours out his speech ("sicho" - the same root as "lasuach"). Jacob instituted the evening service (arvit), as is written: "He came ("vayifga" - literally, "he touched") to the place and slept there" (28,11). "Came" means prayed, as is written, "And you, do not pray for this people and raise not for them a cry or a prayer, and do not touch me."


            The Rambam accepts the opinion that the three daily prayers were instituted in place of the sacrificial service of the Temple. Nonetheless, he also quotes the second opinion, that the avot instituted the prayers. The Rambam obviously understands that there is no contradiction between these two opinions. Accordingly, the "God of Abraham" is the God to whom Abraham prayed at the dawning of day, the "God of Isaac" is the God to whom Isaac prayed in the stillness of the field in the afternoon, the "God of Jacob" is the God whom Jacob met ("touched") in the early night, as darkness fell, and he fled alone his father's house for exile in Aram.


            Let us consider carefully the meaning of the phrase, "our God and the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." There is a fine internal contradiction here, or rather contradictory tendency. On the one hand, our God to whom we pray is none other than the God of our fathers. We are deeply rooted in Jewish history, we are at the tail end of a three thousand year tradition, we are treading on ground blazed by our fathers and we are no more than following in their footsteps. Our God = the God of our fathers.


            On the other hand, the tefila continues and explicates, for those who have forgotten, that the God of our fathers is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. First of all, the entire phrase is unnecessary, since we all know who are "our fathers." But even more, notice that it does not say "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," but rather "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob." This practically declares that the God of Abraham is different from the God of Isaac, who is different from the God of Jacob. And in fact, this is correct. As I stated above, the very concept of multiple avot implies that the religious and spiritual personality of each father was uniquely different, and consequently, his relationship with HIS God was unique. If in prayer we have three fathers, then we are saying that there is no one single paradigm of a relationship with God. Isaac prayed to the God of his father, Abraham, and yet, he instituted his own prayer, at a different time and a different mood. Isaac's prayer was a meditation in a pleasant meadow, the afternoon sun gently shining on wild flowers. Jacob's was a fearful plea in the night of his lonely helplessness, in a nameless place, on the road to an unknown future.


            And we are the children of the forefathers. That means that we are not merely the descendants of the forefathers, but we follow their examples. We should pray as they prayed, as they instituted prayer for us. But think about their example, as exemplified by the triple emphasis of "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob." If we are to be true followers of the avot, then we have to pray as they did, INCLUDING FINDING THE GOD OF THE INDIVIDUAL as they did. For if the God of Abraham is not precisely the God of Isaac, who is not exactly the same as the God who relates to Jacob, then my God is not the same as yours. And yet, we are also praying to "the God of our fathers." When I pray, I am firmly in the tradition of my forefathers who discovered that God is one, and I pray to that one God, and at the same time, prayer, more than any other spiritual occupation, demands that I pray to my personal God, that I express my unique, one in 600,000, relationship with the God of my fathers, that I stand before him as one who not only prays, but institutes a prayer which is unique to me, to this moment, to this place.


            To sum it up, somewhat paradoxically, I follow in the footsteps of my forefathers, who blazed their own paths to God. In other words, I imitate the unique individuality of the avot. I pray to our God, the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.


            This idea, that the oneness of God is seen differently by each individual, is expressed by the Sages in a number of ways. For instance, they state that to Abraham God appeared as an old man, while to the Jews crossing the Red Sea, he appeared as a young warrior. Since it is rather essential to Judaism that God does not actually appear in any shape at all, this should obviously be interpreted metaphorically, to describe the experience of the Jew rather than the actual appearance of God. This statement is rather striking since it directly refers to different appearances of God. An even more relevant statement for our purposes, though somewhat less striking since it does not refer directly to God, is the following comparison of Avraham, Isaac, and Jacob.


Abraham called it (the site of the future Temple of God) a mountain, as is written, "In the mountain of God it will be seen."

Isaac called it a field, as is written, "And Isaac went out to meditate in the field."

Jacob called it a house, as is written, "This is naught other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."


            Remember in the beginning of the shiur, I asked not only why the first berakha is called "avot," but also why it is specifically identified with He who shields ABRAHAM. So far I have only answered the first question: The first berakha defines who God is for us when we pray, and this job was done by the avot for us, both historically (the God of our fathers), and personally (the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob). The midrash I just quoted will provide the answer to the second question, I hope, as well as serving as the key to understanding the rest of the first berakha, after the reference to the three avot. But since this berakha is immensely rich, and I have used up my weekly quota of bytes on your disks, this will have to wait for the next shiur, in two weeks. In the meantime, think about what the similes of this midrash mean - mountain, field, and house. Why do the three avot see the Temple these different ways, and why is Abraham's vision the "chatima," the closing touch, to the first berakha of the Shemona Esrei?