Fathers and Sons

Students of Torah literature know that serious scholarship begins (and often ends) with the commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, familiar to the Jewish world as Rashi. His synthesis of Talmudic law, allegory, and mysticism, together with the multifaceted brilliance of his insights and his economy of language, places Rashi in a class by himself. With deceptive simplicity, he draws our attention to the most profound nuances and gently forces us to consider scriptural anomalies, weaving the breadth and depth of Torah wisdom into his pithy explication of Biblical and Talmudic passages.

Consequently, few things make scholars more nervous than Rashi appearing to point out the obvious. And nowhere does Rashi offer a comment more seemingly pointless than at the outset of this week’s Torah portion.

And Elokoim spoke to Moshe, and He said to him, “I am HaShem; and I appeared to your forefathers, Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, as Keil Shakkai, but My name HaShem I did not make known to them” (Shmos 6:2-3).

(This will get a bit technical, but bear with me; the payoff will make it all worthwhile.)
Rashi begins by explaining that scripture’s use of the name Elokim – referring to G-d’s attribute of justice – places our verse in its proper context as a response to Moshe’s complaint at the end of last week’s parsha: “My Master, why have you brought evil (i.e., injustice) upon this people, and why have you sent me?”

Rashi’s next comment addresses the shift from Elokim to the name HaShem (Y-H-V-H), which represents the divine attribute of mercy and here implies the fulfillment of promises; even though G-d had in fact identified Himself to the patriarchs using the name HaShem, He never revealed Himself to them as such by fulfilling His promise to give them the Land of Israel, a promise that would only be realized in future generations. Rather, He appeared to them as Keil Shakkai, a name descriptive of potential power and self-restraint.

It is Rashi’s next comment, however, that confounds us. On the words And I appeared, Rashi offers this observation: to the patriarchs.

Why is this remark so puzzling? For one thing, in the very next breath the verse itself tells us that HaShem had appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; for another, there are only three patriarchs of the Jewish people. So why did Rashi feel the need to explain what is glaringly self-evident?


The Zohar, the classic book of Jewish mysticism, explains that Torah wisdom is both inherited and acquired. It is the hope of every teacher and parent that our students and children will surpass us in knowledge and wisdom. Even so, if not for the wisdom handed down to parents and teachers by previous generations, no child would have the foundation necessary to attain any level of accomplishment at all. Even Moshe the Lawgiver, whose unparalleled mastery of piety and spiritual wisdom sets him apart from every other figure in Jewish tradition, built his own achievements upon the spiritual foundations of his forebears.

However, to this rule there are three exceptions: Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov – the avos, or patriarchs — so called because they had no one else from whom to learn and no one else’s accomplishments upon which to build.

Born into a generation in which all knowledge of HaShem had been effectively forgotten, Avrohom came on his own to a recognition of his Creator and spent his life developing within himself the attribute of chesed – lovingkindness – the perfection of mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro, commandments between man and his fellow. And although Yitzchok inherited from his father a knowledge of the Almighty, he nevertheless labored to develop within himself the entirely different quality of gevurah – spiritual self-discipline – with no model from whom to learn the process of perfecting mitzvos bein adam L’Makom, commandments between man and G-d.

Finally, as much as Yaakov learned chesed from Avrohom and gevurah from Yitzchok, he had no model for how to perfect within himself mitzvos bein adam l’atzmo, commandments between man and himself, by blending the mutually exclusive qualities of his father and grandfather into a new attribute called emes – ultimate spiritual truth.

Henceforth, with these three qualities woven into the spiritual fabric of the universe and implanted as the spiritual DNA of the Jewish people, all Torah achievement rests upon the foundations of the patriarchs.

What does all this have to do with our parsha? Maskil L’Dovid explains that Rashi recognized an allusion to this profound and mystical lesson in HaShem’s reply to Moshe.
According to Sfas Emes, Moshe had calculated that the suffering of Jews in Egypt was enough to tilt the scales justice in favor of their redemption, thus prompting his complaint that Hashem “had brought evil upon this people.” If the accounting balanced, argued Moshe, then to make the people suffer further was not only pointless but unjust.

What Moshe could not have realized was that, even if the Jews of this generation did not deserve further oppression, the survival of future generations would depend upon the collective suffering experienced by the Jewish people now. That suffering, apparently without just cause, would not only harden the Jewish people so that they could survive thousands of years of tribulations, but would also provide them “credit” against future transgressions to protect them from the harshness of divine judgment later on.

In response to Moshe’s complaint, HaShem rebuked him not for his reasoning but for his lack of trust. “I appeared to the avos,” said HaShem, “not because of merit they had inherited from their forebears but because of merit earned by what they made of themselves. And although none of them saw his life’s work come to fruition, they never wavered in their trust that I would ultimately fulfill the promises I made to them.

“That trust,” explained HaShem, “is the basis of how they became great, how they became the patriarchs whose merit has brought you to the cusp of redemption, just as the merit of your generation will stand by those who come later. So how can you complain to me now, where they never opened their mouths against Me?”

Three times a day, we begin our silent prayer by acknowledging our relationship with HaShem – our G-d and the G-d of our fathers. By standing upon the shoulders of those who came before us, we benefit as the inheritors of a monumental spiritual legacy; at the same time, we acquire our own merit as the avos of our children, who will themselves benefit from what we accomplish.
The power of each — merit received and merit earned — and the power of both together, is beyond comprehension. And the trust we have in that power, especially in the darkest of times, is the key to our ultimate redemption.

Rabbi Goldson writes at http://torahideals.com