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Shiur #04: Avot (Part 2)

  • Rav Ezra Bick



            The question left unanswered from last time was what is the connection between the first berakha - avot - and Abraham specifically, as indicated by the "chatima" - shield of Abraham. (I know that I translated the chatima in the last shiur as "protector of Abraham," but I have since changed my mind. I think "shield" better expresses the meaning of "magen").


            First, let me draw your attention to the next few phrases in the berakha, after the part we analyzed last time:


The great, mighty and awesome God, God most high, who repays great acts of kindness, and has made everything...


I mentioned in the introduction to the course that an important part of Shemona Esrei commentary consists of identifying the scriptural sources of the language of the prayer. One term in particular here stands out - "KEL ELYON" (GOD MOST HIGH). The fact that we recite the Shemona Esrei three times a day may mask the fact that this is a very unusual name of God, which we never use elsewhere in prayer. In fact, it is found in this form in only one place in the Bible, though it is found there four times:


            Abraham has returned victorious from battle against the four invading kings, thereby rescuing the people and property of Sodom.


And Malki-Tzedek, the king of Shalem, brought forth bread and wine; and HE WAS A PRIEST OF THE GOD THE MOST HIGH.

And he blessed him and said: Blessed be Avram to GOD THE MOST HIGH, Who has made heaven and earth.

And blessed be GOD THE MOST HIGH, who has delivered your enemies into your hands; and he (Avraham) gave him a tithe of all.


The king of Sodom said to Avram: Give me the people, and the property take for yourself.

But Avram said to the king of Sodom: I lift up my hand to HaShem, GOD THE MOST HIGH, Who has made heaven and earth. That I will take not a thread nor a shoelace from all that is yours, so that you not say: I have made Avram rich. (Bereishit 14,18-23).



            Kel Elyon was the God of Malki-Tzedek, king of Shalem. Unlike all the other nine kings in this story, he appears on the side of the "good guys" - he exchanges blessings and gifts with Avraham. By giving him a tithe, the grant given to the servants of God, Avraham has confirmed that Kel Elyon is the true God, the God of Avraham; and, in fact, Avraham appropriates this name of God immediately in his reply to the king of Sodom. But nonetheless, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the name Kel Elyon is the name of the God of a non-Jew, unrelated to Avraham. This term therefore stands in sharp contrast to the term "God of Avraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob."


[Note: The following phrase in the Shemona Esrei, "maker of all," is a variation of the Malki-Tzedek term "maker of heaven and earth." The Jewish term, the one God used when He introduced Himself at Sinai and gave the Ten Commandments, is "Who has taken you out of Egypt." Creator of all is of course also a name of God that does not distinguish between Jew and non-Jew.]


            But in fact, this identification of the name Kel Elyon outside of Jewish religious life is more than historical. When Malki-Tzedek uses this name, in the cultural milieu of Canaan, it might very well be translated not as God, the most high, but as "the highest God." In this sense, it could easily serve as the name of the highest god within a pantheon of polytheistic gods. Of course, when Avraham uses it, he intends it to mean "God Who is above all;" and presumably that is in fact the nature of Malki-Tzedek's religion as well. Nonetheless, it is not surprising that this name is not adopted elsewhere in the Bible, or in our common usage even in prayer. Why then is it found here, in the beginning of the Shemona Esrei?


            The answer is strikingly simple, and also explains why this berakha, called avot, the fathers, is the berakha of Abraham specifically, as we end it with the words, "shield of Abraham." Prayer is first and foremost an expression of our being human, created in the image of God. The first step in prayer is not that of a Jew, rooted in Torah, in commandment and obligation, but that of Malki-Tzedek, the image of the righteous human. The Sages state that Malki-Tzedek was Shem the son of Noah. He represents the righteous gentile. He taught Abraham to appeal to "Kel Elyon," God the most high. If, as I explained in the previous shiur, you are defined by the God to whom you turn, then by turning first of all to Kel Elyon, we define ourselves as human, even before we define ourselves as Jews. In other words, to put it simply, if you cannot pray as a man, you cannot pray as a Jew.


            Abraham was the first Jew, in one sense. But the statement that the fathers instituted prayer, which we cited last time, means that they did not pray because they were Jews. Let me explain:


            The Sages state that the forefathers observed all the precepts of the Torah, even though they lived before Sinai. What they are trying to say is that they were precursors of Torah, and therefore, somehow or other, they included themselves in the obligation of Sinai. Now when they also state that the forefathers instituted the daily prayers, they do not merely mean that they were the first to pray as part of this voluntary acceptance of the obligations of Sinai. On the contrary, they mean that we pray today, as part of our obligation, because they INSTITUTED prayer. The relationship is the opposite of the other mitzvot. In the usual case, Sinai is the cause, and the observance of the Jew, or of the forefather, is the result ( Sinai --> shabbat, for instance).  Here, their practice is the cause, and our observance is the result (Abraham's prayer --> today's shacharit). In other words, they did not pray as Jews, but they taught the Jews how to pray.


            Hence, the Sages wrote the first berakha as "shield of Abraham." Abraham was the absolute first, the one who came out of the darkness of idolatry, without guide or teacher, and turned to God. Torah was not his light, for he had no light, except his inquiring mind and yearning soul. The first berakha, the one that defines God for us, and hence defines ourselves in relation to Him, states: We are sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, rooted in Jewish history, and we follow their path to find Kel Elyon, the supreme God, the One to whom man turns when he has nothing else, nothing to depend on, no one to teach him or guide him, not even Torah, not even a father. This is the first step. This is "avoda," service, and the God whom we can finally find is "magen Avraham," the shield of Abraham.


            What is the source of this term, the shield of Abraham? Immediately after Abraham departs from the victory scene at Sedom described above, God appears to him and promises: "Do not fear Abraham, I shall be your shield, your reward is very great." That Abraham appears to be afraid and in need of comfort AFTER the battle leads the Sages to explain this not as fear in the usual sense but as anxiety. Abraham is afraid that perhaps he has killed innocent people, or that he may have no merit left in God's eyes, or that his idolatrous youth will haunt him in the future (See Midrash Raba). Why is he afraid now and not before the battle? When he went out to fight, he knew that that was what he had to do - it was right! He did not go because God told him to (and indeed, God had not told him to); it was an immediate instinctual reaction, a gut response. Now, when it is all over, Abraham has no idea if he has really done the right thing, because he has relied not on a verse in the Torah, nor on a law in the Shulchan Arukh. He has followed his own sense of dedication and morality, from out of the darkness. Hence he fears, trembles, is unsure and anxious. God appears to him and promises - I am your shield. The shield of Abraham is the shield of he who has nothing else to rely on but God Himself. If you recall the first shiur of the series, I explained that this is the essence of "avoda" - there is nothing else for us but God, no other source of sustenance, of power, of value. This was the discovery of Abraham, and therefore the God of prayer, before we shall call Him anything else, is the "shield of Abraham."


            So, to conclude this part of our discussion of the first berakha: This berakha is called "avot" because the avot taught us how to address God, and that is what the first berakha is about. What are the lessons that we are applying here?


1. You address God as a successor and a continuation of the avot and of Jewish history;

2. You address God as an individual who has to have his own unique personal relationship with God, as they did;

3. You address God as a lonely individual creature, who has nothing on which to rely or depend other than this relationship with God, as Abraham did;

4. God is your shield in this world, when you are completely alone, as He was for Abraham.



Part Two: The rest of the berakha


1. "Who repays great acts of kindness, and has made everything..."


            The Hebrew word translated here as "repays" is "gomel." In many contexts, this word means to give back, to pay, or to return. If that is the meaning here, then the "great acts of kindness" are not the acts of God, but actions to which He is responding. These would have to be the acts of the avot.


            The problem with this interpretation is that this is the meaning of another, later phrase in this berakha - "and remembers the kindness of the avot." What is more, it is out of place here, sandwiched between "Kel Elyon" and "creator of all," which, as we have seen, are one continuous expression in the speech of Malki-Tzedek and Abraham.


            The usual explanation of this phrase is that "gomel" means to pay out, to provide, but not necessarily in response to a previous action. The acts of kindness are the acts of God. God "performs great acts of kindness." In fact, in context, these acts are acts of kindness, "chesed," precisely because they are NOT in response to anything, as the actions in question are the acts of creation - hence the complete phrase "performs great acts of kindness and creates all." In other words, we are turning to God, who is creator and owner of all - which, as I have repeatedly stressed is the essential element in the service of God, the realization that He is the source and owner of everything for me - and stressing that the creation of the world is itself an act of enormous chesed, kindness, on the part of God.


            What doe this mean? The Sages cite the verse, "the world is built with chesed (Psalms 89,3)" in this context, taking it to mean that the world was created out of pure chesed. Why? Simply, other actions of God are engendered by some previous state of affairs. God acts because He has promised (for instance, the promises made to the avot), or because the principle of Justice requires Him to do so. But the creation of the world itself was in response to nothing, since nothing existed. This was pure GIVING on the part of God, pure chesed, granting to the world an existence to which it could have no claim whatsoever.


            By adding this phrase to "Kel Elyon, creator of Heaven and earth," the Sages have effected a subtle change in the original meaning, one which is especially appropriate to tefila. When Malki-Tzedek blessed Kel Elyon, he was expressing thanks to God, He who owns everything and is above all, for His abundant goodness in giving victory to Abraham. Gratitude is of course an essential emotion for a servant of God, but it is not the essence of the service of God, as we have seen. Specifically, in the Shemona Esrei, gratitude will appear at the END, in the 17th berakha. Malki-Tzedek is saying: God owns everything, it is all His. In the Shemona Esrei, by adding the explanation that He is performing an act of chesed, we are saying that the world which is all His is itself the greatest testimony to His kindness, His giving. We have no claim, no rights, to demand this chesed, but we have a basis for our requests, since His ownership of everything is at the same time a proof that He is infinitely generous. God's entire relationship with the world is based on the fact that He gives and we receive, and not the other way around.


2. "...and remembers the kindness of the fathers, and brings a redeemer to the children of their children, for the sake of His name, with love."


            Our relationship with the avot is not only one of followers, or imitators. The avot have not only taught us how to pray, but they have also opened for us, as Jews, a door of chesed, because God remembers the chesed of the fathers when he relates to the children. What is the chesed of the avot? I explained that chesed is what is done not out of obligation, to pay a debt, but freely, an act of giving. The avot performed an act of chesed for God, by proclaiming His name in a world that knew Him not. In a striking metaphor, the Sages say about Abraham that "he mended the tear" (Bereishit Raba 39,3). He restored, or at least began the restoration, of the world to God. Hence, God will bring a redeemer for the children, because His name in this world is now inextricably woven into the fabric of Jewish existence. One of the great principles of Jewish thought is hinted at here - God's presence in the world is part and parcel of the existence of Israel. The Jewish people ARE God's presence in the world.


3. "...with love."


            I would like to conclude with an explanation of this word that I heard, in a different context, from my master the Rav zt"l, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. In the Shemona Esrei of Rosh HaShana, we state, "and also Noah You remembered with love." The Rav explained that God saved Noah from the flood for two reasons. Firstly, this was necessary for humanity - someone had to be saved to continue the human race. This was a cosmic-historical reason. But secondly, God saved Noah because of His love for Noah the individual. This is a personal reason. That is the meaning of "with love" - God saved Noah not only to further the Divine plan, as part of a cosmic design, as a continuation of human history, but with love, out of  personal concern for one man and his relationship with God.


            I think that that is the explanation here as well. God remembers the chesed of the avot for the children as I explained, for His name is upon us and we continue the kindness of the avot. This is a cosmic, historical factor. But at the same time, this "memory" of God is the basis for His love, an individual personal relationship, with the children's children, with no matter how many generations, just as He had a personal relationship with the avot before there was a Jewish people. We are part of the collective who have a special relationship with God, who are sure of redemption, but this relationship is one of "love," one that engulfs each "child's child" with the personal concern and individual care of God for that singular individual. In the end, our God - my God - is the shield of Abraham, God who "helps, saves, and protects."


Next shiur we move on to the second berakha.

1. The name of the berakha is "gevurot" - mighty acts. Why?

2. What is the berakha about?

3. What is the "chatima" and the "before chatima" about? What does resurrection have to do with the theme of this berakha?

4. What does the doctrine of resurrection mean, for us, that it should have a berakha all for itself?