Ki Tisa: Merit of the Fathers

Holy Lineage

What happens when we don the garments of our parents?

Table for Five: Ki Tisa

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

“Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your very Self, and to whom You said: ‘I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens, and all this land which I said that I would give to your seed, they shall keep it as their possession forever.’ The Lord [then] reconsidered the evil He had said He would do to His people.”

– Ex. 32:13-14

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles

Moshe pleads, “God, you committed. You swore by your very Self!” Commitments are funny things. Why do we make commitments? Let’s really think this through. If you want to exercise more, why not just do it? If you love your significant other, why is there a need to “commit”? The reason, of course, is because inspiration is fleeting. We know that we will not always feel as motivated to do things. A wedding is essentially two people saying, “it may not always be as romantic and inspiring as it is now. But we still commit to being together even then.”

Love, positivity and inspiration have their way of dwindling. They require constant infusions of fresh love and inspiration to maintain themselves and grow. Some bit of the fresh newness of even the most wonderful things will always diminish. That’s what a commitment is. Hashem promised to Abraham that he would make his descendants great. So he did. He will always accept us back even should we fall short. Hashem made that deal with Abraham. Remember – it was two-way covenant. The elegance of our final moments every Yom Kippur strikes me. We ask Hashem to forgive us. “Keep Your part of the deal.” As that occurs, we cry out the Shema, and say “Hashem hu haelokim.” We say: Hashem no matter what happens, You are our God. We have been kicked, spit upon, and beaten from one end of the earth to another. And never once did we forget You.

Dini Coopersmith, Teacher, Israel Trip Coordinator 

After it seemed God was “bailing out” on the Jewish People, He reconsiders after Moshe’s mention of our forefathers.

In Michtav m’Eliyahu (1st volume, pg 13) Rav Dessler attempts to explain this reasoning known as zchut avot (merit of the forefathers.) Is this Justice? Can a Judge let someone off the hook because of their lineage? If a Judge believes he is favoring someone because he knows his relatives or family, shouldn’t he remove himself from the case?

He describes two thieves who were caught shoplifting. They were both found guilty. One, however, came from a good family, with parents who taught him good values, even sent him for therapy when needed. The Judge, who prefers to reconsider a jail sentence, after speaking to the family, realizes the young man had recently befriended a gang who compelled him to partake of the shoplifting. They take full responsibility for their son’s rehabilitation.

The other young man did not have a supportive family or even a place to call home. He was shoplifting because this was what he always did because he did not have money to pay. The Judge had no choice but to place him in a correctional center for juvenile delinquents.

Zchut Avot means we come from good stock. We went through a trauma in Egypt, we were swayed by the mixed multitudes in our midst and influenced to behave badly. But given the correct guidance and direction, we can be rehabilitated and re-established as the “Light unto the Nations” we are meant to be.

Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School

Let’s hear it for nepotism! Several times throughout the exodus narrative, God invokes His promises to our forefathers to rescue their descendants from Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land. Now that Israel has sinned with the golden calf, and God has lost His patience with His people, Moshe throws those promises right back at God. This is the first time we see the invocation of zekhut avot, the merit of the fathers, but not the last. Every day, three times a day, we call to God in prayer, reminding Him of His love for Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov. The Yom Kippur liturgy is filled with appeals to God to remember His promises to our patriarchs and to credit us with their virtues. Our very invocation of these merits tacitly admits that we do not always share them or measure up to the faith of our forebears.

I often ponder, for how long can we keep playing the “merit of the fathers” card? Is it a “Get out of jail free” card with no expiration date? A magic incantation that absolves us of all wrong if recited correctly? That certainly cannot be. We expect God to remember His commitments to Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, but what about us? Whenever we ask God to remember the patriarchs, we should remember them as well and emulate their faith and commitment. “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” is equally relevant to us as it is to God. Perhaps more.

Rabbi Patricia Fenton, American Jewish University

When Moses pleads with God to turn back from destroying the people, he says “zachor l’Avraham, l’Yitchak u’l’Yisrael,” which may be translated not as “remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel,” but “remember for Abraham, for Isaac and for Israel.”

Moses intercedes with God on our behalf, and asks that God save us for the sake of our Patriarchs. This scene is often described as the origin of Jewish prayer in the manner of zekhut avot, literally “the merits of the fathers,” when we try to sway God to act or not, based on the good deeds of our ancestors, if not of ourselves.

When invoking the merit of the ancestors, why does Moses use the name Israel rather than Jacob? He uses Jacob in Deuteronomy 9:27, when retelling the incident of the calf, so why the name Israel here?

Is it possible that by mentioning Israel, Moses is reminding God that, like our Patriarchs, the generation of the Exodus is both meritorious and flawed? Israel is the name Jacob received after he “struggled with beings divine and human” and prevailed (Gen. 32:29). Like the generation of the Exodus, and like us today, Israel is imperfect and bears the scars of his struggles.

We often speak of the flawed nature of our biblical ancestors, and find comfort in their stories. As God kept faith with them, may God keep faith with us. May we strive to live the kinds of lives that will allow our ancestors to recall our merits.

Michael Berenbaum, Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute

Selective Historical Memory

Moshe’s task is to descend – God’s command “lech raid,” [go down} and transmit what he has experienced to the people, who in interim have sought a concrete god, building the Golden Calf. Moshe is shattered, God enraged vowing to destroy these children of Israel and build anew from Moshe.

Moshe forsakes his potential role as Patriarch, cajoles God, invokes the covenant with the Patriarchs, the promise made to them. Honoring that commitment, God changes course, renouncing the threat made in anger. God understands that the journey from Egypt to the Sea and from the Sea to Sinai was just too intense for a slave people – too much, too soon. Time is needed to internalize the message of Sinai. A Slave generation cannot enter the Promised Land. The portrait we have of God is of a deity who can be persuaded by reason, who does not fear Divine inconsistency. It is a far more intimate portrayal than the medieval philosophers who write of Omniscience and Omnipotence.

Who are we the people Israel?

Let us be candid.

With pride we embrace the self-depiction that we Jews stood at Sinai. We forget that we are also the descendants of the people who built the Golden Calf immediately thereafter. Each generation must confront the choice between Sinai and the Golden Calf. And in each generation we must forsake the Golden Calf. Such is the challenge of this generation, which has come to worship many false gods. Sinai or the Golden Calf, the choice is ours to make, again and again.

With thanks to Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Dini Coopersmith, Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Rabbi Patricia Fenton, and Michael Berenbaum

Image: Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Pousssin, 1634

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