Netziv on the Characteristic Traits of our Patriarchs

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Shiur #15: Netziv on the Characteristic Traits of our Patriarchs



The world stands upon three things: Torah, avoda and gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness). (Avot 1:2)


            A commentator inclined to identify these three central traits with our three patriarchs seemingly has a straightforward task.  Avraham reflects the paradigm of compassion in his hospitality to three wayfarers and in his praying on behalf of the people of Sodom.   Yitzchak excels in avoda, understood as worship through sacrifice and prayer.  During the episode of the akeida, he himself becomes a sacrifice, and he frequently engages in prayer (Bereishit 24:63, 25:21).  Adopting certain midrashim enables us to identify Yaakov with Torah study.  He dwells in the tents of Torah and also spends fourteen years in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever.  The Zohar (parashat Chukat) makes this threefold identification exactly as we have outlined.


            Surprisingly, R. Berlin shifts the perspective, identifying Avraham with Torah study and Yaakov with the trait of compassion.  In order to analyze why Netziv does this, we need to first survey his general theory about the avot, a recurring theme in his Ha’amek Davar.   A word of caution to those with a strong peshat orientation, who may find R. Berlin’s integration of aggadot and midrashim off-putting.  The fact that a commentator utilizes midrash does not necessarily indicate that he is not reading the biblical verses carefully and providing important insights rooted in the text.  Chazal themselves were very careful readers, and one can incorporate their ideas without obliterating the distinction between peshat and derash.  Furthermore, even when not reflecting peshat, this type of methodology can provide wisdom regarding theology and insights into the religious personality.


            For R. Berlin, the avot all merit divine providence in a variety of areas, but each one receives a special providence – commensurate with his own particular strength – that breaks the boundaries of nature.[1]   Avraham stands for Torah study, which provides victory in battle.  Thus, Avraham wins the war with the four kings against overwhelming odds.  Yitzchak stands for avoda, which brings material sustenance.  Indeed, his farming produces crops beyond reasonable expectations (Bereishit 26:12).  The fact that significant parts of prayer beseech God for material benefits supports Netziv’s link between avoda and sustenance.  It is no accident that the gemara (Shabbat 12a) says that prayer is about temporal life.[2]  Yaakov represents compassion, which brings peaceful resolutions as a reward.  Despite great tension with both Esav and Lavan, Yaakov manages to resolve each situation without any violence.  Yaakov also shows compassion in his dedicated care for Lavan’s sheep.[3]


            The characteristics of our patriarchs symbolize varying modes of existence, which provide a range of models for different periods in our history. Avraham can serve as a model for the Jews in the desert on the way to the Land of Israel.  Note that we receive the Torah in the desert and that the sojourn in the desert ultimately culminates with military confrontations with other nations.[4]  Yitzchak teaches us about Jewish life in the land of Israel.  If the Temple and the sacrificial order represent central components of avoda, it naturally follows that this pillar only finds true fruition in our homeland.  The fact that God instructs Yitzchak to remain in the Land of Israel despite a famine (Bereishit 26:2), in sharp contrast to the divine messages for Avraham and Yaakov, bolsters the point.  Yaakov’s ability to settle disputes in a conciliatory fashion prefigures life in the Diaspora.[5]  Though some modern nationalists may find the efforts of shtadlanim to be distasteful, such efforts helped to protect the Jewish community living under difficult regimes.


            Another difference between the models relates to the question of their universality.  Both Torah study and the sacrificial order relate primarily to the Jewish community and not to Gentiles.  Acts of compassion, on the other hand, apply on a more universal plane.  After dreaming about angels ascending and descending a ladder, Yaakov refers to the location where he slept as the “gate of heaven.”  R. Berlin argues that the usage of the word “sha’ar” (gate) in place of “petach” (opening) conveys the above idea.  A “petach” is a narrower opening restricted to household members.   A gate, however, indicates a much broader opening that all can pass through.  Greater universality applies within the Jewish nation as well.  Not every Jew will have the Torah scholarship needed to emulate the model of Avraham, but all can don Yaakov’s mantle of compassion.[6]


            In the same dream, God promises Yaakov that his descendents will multiply like the dust of the earth (Bereishit 28:14).  According to Netziv, this imagery particularly fits Yaakov.  Yaakov represents the exilic Jew who lacks the dignity of self-determination and must sometimes abase himself to promote Jewish well-being. [7]  Netziv is aware of the obvious objection that God utilizes the same imagery when talking to Avraham (Bereishit 13:16).  He responds that in Avraham’s case, the Torah explicitly states that the image of dust foretells great multitudes of descendants.  The verse addressed to Yaakov does not explain the meaning of the image because the dust has additional resonance in Yaakov’s case.[8]          


This model also explains a famous aggada (Pesachim 88a) which says that each of the avot referred to the site of the Temple in a different way.  Avraham called it a mountain, Yitzchak termed it a field, and Yaakov referred to it as a house.   High vantage points provide significant advantage in battle, so the mountain symbolizes Avraham’s success in war.  The field represents the material bounty generated by Yitzchak’s divine service.  Yaakov’s house reflects his ability to generate harmonious living.[9]


            A verse in Devarim (33:29) highlights the different models of encounter with enemies: “People saved by the Lord, the shield of your help, who is the sword of your pride.”  The first part of the citation refers to God saving us without our engaging in battle.  This happens when Yaakov meets the challenges of Esav and Lavan.  The final part speaks of using a sword.  This occurs when Avraham soundly defeats his enemies on the battlefield.   Yitzchak adheres to a middle model, since he neither defeats his enemies nor truly reconciles with them.   Rather, the enemies are forced to hide their enmity in their hearts due to Yitzchak’s economic success.[10]


            Netziv uses this theory to explain why certain stories about the avot fail to appear explicitly in the biblical narrative.  He assumes that episodes recounted in midrashim actually did occur to our patriarchs.  Nimrod tossed Avraham into a fiery furnace and Yaakov fought a battle against the kings of Canaan.  The Torah does not relate these stories because they do not reflect our forefathers excelling within their representative traits.  Avraham’s brave willingness to defy Nimrod and become a martyr was prior to his involvement in Torah study.  We also understand why Avraham was only able to save himself and could not vanquish Nimrod’s hordes in battle.  At this stage of his career, he did not have the military aid that follows from Torah study.[11]  Yaakov’s victory over the Canaanites happened because of providential help within the natural order and not due to revealed miracles, since his particular attribute does not encourage military ventures.  Therefore, the Torah does not tell this tale.[12]


            The symbolism of the paschal offering in Egypt centers on these three pillars of Jewish life.  God commands the Jews to place blood on both doorposts and on the lintel.  R. Berlin suggests that the two sides of the door represent avoda and gemilut chasadim, whereas the lintel symbolizes Torah study.  Torah study belongs on top because it provides the guidance that enables proper fulfillment of the other two pillars.  Since “a boor cannot be pious” (Avot 2:5), the pillar of avoda depends upon Torah knowledge.  The full flowering of compassion should also be rooted in Torah erudition.  But the dependency works in the opposite direction as well.  Benevolence supports Torah study and (as we saw earlier) avoda generates material sustenance that supports Torah learning.  Torah gives guidance from above, but the support of the other pillars enables Torah study to continue.  The Torah alternates between mentioning the lintel first (Shemot 12:22) and mentioning the doorposts first (Shemot 12:7) to illustrate that varying contexts call for different emphasis or prioritization among the three pillars.[13]


            Each of the patriarchs is supposed to adhere to his particular trait. Yaakov becomes lame when wrestling the angel because he deviated from his trait of peace.  He had every right to defend himself from the angel’s onslaught, but should have ceased the struggle once the angel decided to end the fight.  Yaakov’s decision to perpetuate the confrontation conflicts with his essential attribute.[14]  Netziv compares this need for consistent adherence to an attribute to the idea that someone who repeatedly performs a meritorious practice is considered as having taken on a vow and must continue that practice.[15]


            Yaakov attempts to pass his method on to his children.   When Yaakov and Lavan reach an agreement, Yaakov instructs his “brothers” to pile up a mound of stones (Bereishit 31:45).  Rashi cites a midrash that the term “brothers” actually refers to Yaakov’s sons.  Assuming this midrash’s reading, why should the Torah use a misleading phrase?  R. Berlin explains that Yaakov wants his sons to learn to emulate his efforts at reconciliation.  He purposely does not ask his servants so that his sons can participate in this covenant with Lavan.  However, if the sons only help to please their father, they are not truly internalizing the message.  Yaakov wants his sons not to feel constrained by filial duty to help, but rather to feel like equal partners in dissolving the tension with Lavan.  They should help as brothers more than as sons. [16]


            According to Netziv, Yosef took after his father in this matter more than did his brothers.  When Yaakov’s family encounters Esav, the Torah explicitly mentions Yosef and not his brothers because Yosef was more interested and involved in soothing Esav’s hatred.  The other brothers went along with their father’s plan but only Yosef identified with it. [17]  This trait served Yosef well in his ultimate reconciliation with his brothers.  Yaakov’s blessing to Yosef mentions “the God of your father” precisely because Yosef had adopted Yaakov’s approach.[18]  This also explains Yaakov’s added affection for Yosef.  Some parents find themselves most strongly drawn to those children bearing strong similarity to their own personality.[19]


            Why does Netziv deviate from the more obvious structure found in the Zohar?  If we start the analysis with the providential rewards rather than with the characters of the avot, the answer is easy.  Avraham fight wars, while Yaakov does not.  Yaakov manages to calm the difficult tension with both Esav and Lavan to the point where no one gets hurt.  This explanation for Netziv’s approach works if we assume that military victory is the appropriate remuneration for Torah study, whereas compassion should be rewarded with peaceful resolutions.  The latter linkage is easier to assume, since it seems reasonable that an interpersonal quality will bring interpersonal rewards.


            Perhaps we can justify Netziv even with the analysis of each patriarch’s character as the starting point.  Midrashim about Yaakov studying Torah are matched by midrashim about Avraham studying Torah (Bereishit Rabba 61:1).  The essential difference lies in something explicit in the verses.  Avraham “calls in the name of the Lord” (Bereishit 12:8, 13:4), but Yaakov never does.  If we understand “calling in the name of God” as teaching ideas about religion, then Avraham has a clear educator’s role that we do not necessarily find regarding Yaakov.  This may suggests Avraham’s greater involvement in Torah.

[1] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 12:17.

[2] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 2:5.

[3] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 30:29.

[4] These two points connecting Avraham with Jewish life in the desert are my own suggestions and do not appear in Netziv.

[5] Harchev Davar Shemot 40:20.

[6] Harchev Davar Bereishit 28:19.

[7] Harchev Davar Bereishit 28:19.

[8] I have simplified somewhat Netziv’s resolution of this problem. See Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 13:16.

[9] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 12:17.

[10] Ha’amek Davar Devarim 33:29.  Netziv applies this verse to our patriarchs in a number of ways; I am presenting only one approach.

[11] Harchev Davar Bereishit 12:17.

[12] Ha’amek Davar Shemot 3:6.

[13] Ha’amek Davar Shemot 12: 22.

[14] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 32:26.

[15] Harchev Davar Bereishit 32:26.

[16] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 31:46.

[17] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 33:7.

[18] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 49:25. 

[19] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 37:3.