One of the highlights of the Pesach seder comes at the very end: Echad me yodea? (Who Knows One?) The song itself supplies the answers: One is Hashem, two are the tablets of the covenant (containing the ten commandments), three are the Forefathers (Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov – the Patriarchs), and four are the Foremothers (Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah – the Matriarchs.)
This song is based on a lesson from the Talmud (Berachot 16b).
תנו רבנן אין קורין אבות אלא לשלשה ואין קורין אמהות אלא לארבע
The Sages taught: Only three are called Fathers, and only four are called Mothers.
What is the significance of telling us that there is only a certain number and no more? And why wouldn’t Adam and Chava (Eve) or Noah and Naama (his wife) also be called patriarchs and matriarchs; didn’t all of humanity come from them?
Parents impart their character and personality qualities to their children. Through nature, i.e., heredity, children receive their genetic makeup, their physical attributes, and, through nurture, viz, education, they receive their personalities and character. (This is a very rough breakdown, but it suffices to make the point.)
It is sometimes easy to tell a child’s family name just by looking at him. He looks just like his father. Or, a mannerism or action could be the giveaway. That is something that only so-and-so does, so his child must have learned it from him. Yet after one generation and, for sure, several, it becomes impossible to tell who the grandparents were, since their qualities, as strong as they were in their children, have become diluted by the dominant qualities of the subsequent generations.
The Talmud is telling us that as far away as we may go from our forefathers and foremothers, they still have a direct and tangible influence on our character. Every Jew has certain character traits and good qualities just because he is a grandchild of the forefathers and foremothers. Each of the forefathers perfected himself in a specific attribute that he passed down and which became an indelible part of every Jewish person until the end of time. Because Adam and Eve, and Noah and Naama, did not distinguish themselves in any particular attribute, they therefore imparted no specific attribute to their progeny. Hence, they did not achieve the status of patriarchs or matriarchs.
Our Sages teach us that Hashem has three main attributes. They are,חסד – chessed – Loving kindness, דין -din – strict judgment, and רחמים – rachamim – mercy. Each of the forefathers chose to model and perfect in himself one of these attributes. Avraham perfected the attribute of חסד – Loving kindness, Yitzchak the attribute of דין strict judgment, and Yaakov the attribute of רחמים – mercy.
The Talmud (Yevamot 79a) quotes King David;
אמר שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים
There are three signs by which the Jewish people are recognized in the world. They are merciful, embarrassed, and bestowers of loving kindness.
These are the three characteristics we received from our three forefathers. Merciful from Jacob, embarrassment from Yitzchak, and loving kindness from Avraham.
Hashem’s first attribute is loving kindness Because Hashem is the beginning of everything, and there is nothing before Him or over Him that can compel Him to do anything. Anything that He does comes “from the goodness of His heart,” so to speak, and a desire to bestow His goodness and love upon others. This is the source and reason for all that exists.
Hashem could have created people merely as souls and bestowed upon them spiritual goodness and pleasure for all eternity, but Hashem wanted the recipients’ pleasure to be perfect and without embarrassment. Hashem knew that because the soul came from Himself, One who can only give (and cannot take, since He is perfect,) that the soul would disdain accepting, having done nothing to earn it, unending pleasure as a gift. This would taint the pleasure making it bitter-sweet, maybe more bitter than sweet.
To remedy this problem, Hashem revealed His second attribute: din – strict judgment. He created a system whereby we will be able to justly demand (din) payment, or reward, for our actions. That is this world, where we must choose between right and wrong, good and bad. These choices are ours alone and entitle us to reward for our good decisions.
This world was also created entirely with the attribute of strict judgment. How is that? Every one of the 118 elements on the periodic table of elements that combine to create all matter on this earth has its exact and unique physical properties. As Hashem created matter, he judged each element to determine exactly what it would be with just so many protons, neutrons, and electrons. These judgments are what make each element what it is, whether solid, gas, or liquid. These judgments also determined the boiling and freezing point, the hardness or softness, strength or weakness, color and consistency etc. of each unique element.
The laws of nature in the universe are also very exact. In his book “Just Six Numbers,” Martin Rees, a Royal Society Research Professor at Cambridge University, describes six numbers that are especially significant. Two of them relate to the basic forces, two fix the size and overall “texture” of our universe and determine whether it will continue for ever, and two more fix the properties of space itself. The essence of the book is to explain how if any of these numbers were just slightly off, the entire universe would be unable to exist.
The number for example is equal to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (That’s 33 zeros). This number measures the strength of the electrical forces that hold atoms together divided by the force of gravity between them. If there were just a few less zeros, only a short-lived miniature universe could exist and no creatures could grow larger than insects.
He speaks about only six of the 22 constants in nature that are all extremely exact. They work hormoniously to create a universe capable of supporting life. If any of them were even slightly off, life could not exist on our planet.
These laws of nature are consistent and unforgiving. If a person leaps from a tall building, gravity will pull him down to earth every time.
Hashem’s third quaility rachamim, mercy, is a combination of chessed and din. That is because chessed is unlimited kindness without boundaries or limitations. This alone would not allow for one to earn his reward. Din is exact judgment without any “slack.” Were a person able to do everything exactly right throughout his life, he would earn great reward, but this is simply unrealistic. Man is far from perfect.
ואמר אם אני בורא אותו במידת הדין אין לו תקומה
The Midrash (פסיקתא רבתי – פרשה מ ) explains that originally, Hashem wanted to create man to live in a world with only din. Yet when He saw that the world would be unable to endure because the first time that man stepped out of line he would be destroyed for rebelling against the Great and Mighty Hashem, Hashem combined chessed and din to create rachamim. The chessed component allows a person time to reflect on his actions and to repent for them. When Hashem ultimately punishes a person, it is also with mercy, and not to his death. The din aspect limits the amount of chessed one will receive, and, unless a person has removed the sin through teshuva, din ultimately visits a judgment upon the person.
Rachamim comes from the word רחם – “womb” for it is the attribute that allows for a future, much like a womb, which gives a future to a fetus. For this reason, rachamim is also called the attribute of אמת – emmet – truth because it allows for Hashem’s creation to remain true to its goal and continue to exist.
There is a stunning application in creation of how chessed and din combine to form rachamim.
These three attributes have other appelations:גדול – Great,- for chessed, גבור – Mighty, for din, and נורא – Awesome, for rachamim. In the Shmoneh esrei, the silent prayer, after mentioning the forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, we mention these three adjectives – הגדול, הגבור, והנורא , the Great, Mighty and Awesome, because they correspond to the three forefathers.
Hashem’s greatness is evidenced in the universe that He created. It is great and of immense size. Billions of light years big, with an almost infinite number of creatures and objets in it.
Hashem manifests His great might by such a holy and spiritual G-d creating a material world, the exact opposite of His completely spiritual essence. (Might is indicative of overcoming a diffucult obstacle.) Hashem did this by limiting His spirituality and allowing more and more materialism to appear in creation. In this sense, Hashem exibited extreme might in overcoming Himself (His spritual self), so to speak, and allowing for materialism to appear. He did this until there were tiny tiny particles of matter, even smaller than atoms.
The third attribute, Awesome, is realized by combining the great and the mighty. How is that? Splitting an atom, one of the smallest particles of matter, yields an atomic explosion of tremedous size and power. Temperatures of a nuclear explosion reach those in the interior of the sun, about 100,000,000° Celsius, and produce a brilliant fireball. In other words, Hashem’s greatness can be seen in one of the smallest particles of matter that Hashem made. That is absolutely awesome! How could such an infintesmally small thing such as an atom (1.660538921(73) × 10-27 kilograms) contain so much power? Only the Awesome Hashem could do it.
This is true of every one of Hashem’s creatures and inventions. Look closely at any plant, bug, or animal. You will find Hashem’s out-of-the-box ingenuity and brilliance in each one of them. That is simply awesome, nothing less.
How were our forefathers able to instill these attributes in their progeny until the end of time? These indelible traits of the Jewish nation result from the difficult tests that they passed, which, in doing so, made the benefits that accrued to them from passing those tests, the very fabric of their persona, and a trait to be inherited by every Jew until the end of time.
Rabbi Chaim ben Isaac Volozhiner (1749 -1821) in his commentary to the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:3), derives this concept from a verse in Proverbs 20:7.
ספר משלי פרק כ
(ז) מִתְהַלֵּךְ בְּתֻמּוֹ צַדִּיק אַשְׁרֵי בָנָיו אַחֲרָיו:
When a Tzadik goes in righteous ways, praiseworthy are his children after him.
R’ Chaim explains: Many of the attributes that the righteous person worked and toiled to attain become second nature to his children and can be acquired with just a small amount of work. As we have seen throughout the generations, even the simplest Jew, when faced with the test of “your life or your G-d,” has chosen to give his life instead of bowing to an idol. This is a direct result of Avraham Avinu being willing to give up his life for Hashem by allowing himself to be thrown into the fire of Ur Kasdim.
Avraham sought to model and perfect the attribute of chessed. To this end, many of Avraham’s tests were in the area of kindness, and sometimes even required him to curtail his natural chessed. For example, one test was to send Yishmael away because Sarah perceived that he was having a negative influence on Yitzchak. Avraham did not agree with Sarah, but Hashem told Avraham to listen to her. Avraham’s love and compassion for his son should have made it impossible to send him into the wilderness to possibly perish, but Avraham overcame his innate feelings to fulfill Hashem’s instruction.
The same is true with the binding of Yitzchak. Avraham’s every spiritual hope and aspiration was embodied in this son Yitzchak, and now he is told to kill him? He is a pure and righteous person! He will carry forward all the holy work Avraham did in the world. Why should he die? Avraham overcame his attribute of chessed and willingly complied with Hashem’s command.
These tests to withhold his chessed reveal that Avraham did not do chessed because it suited his good nature. It was deliberate and calculated. And where it was deemed inappropriate, Avraham desisted from it.
Another striking example of Avraham’s chessed is when Avraham tried to save the city of Sedom, which represented the antithesis of Avraham. Their policies forbade bestowing any kindness at all. No one was permitted to feed the poor or give a person a place to sleep. When a poor person came to town, no one was allowed to give him food or lodging, and the visitor would either starve to death on a park bench or leave town. The Midrash tells us that when a poor man came to town and lasted “too long,” the residents figured out that someone must be feeding him on the sly. They staked out spies, and when they found a young woman secretly bringing him food, they took the girl, smeared her body with honey, and put her on the roof in the sun for the bees to sting her to death. What cruel and evil people! Avraham should have rejoiced when Hashem told him that He wants to destroy this evil city! But Avraham, the pillar of kindness, still had hope for them: If only there are 10 righteous people, he negotiated with Hashem, maybe, we can save them all.
Yitzchak chose the opposite attribute to chessed, viz, din. Yitzchak chose to live his life with the attribute of din, which means that he did not want to receive any mercy from Hashem. He wanted to receive only what he deserved without any help from Hashem. He lived his life in complete awe of Hashem and never committed a sin. This is why the Torah has so few personal stories about his life. There is little that we can learn from him because of our inability to live our lives on the blade of a knife as he did. This is why on two occasions Yaakov refers to Hashem as פחד יצחק – the one my father constantly feared. This is the source of our embarrassment. Yitzchak, having lived his whole life in awe and fear of transgressing a sin, has imbued his progeny with an innate fear and embarrassment from Hashem.
Yaakov chose to emulate Hashem’s attribute of Rachamim, and lived his life with both attributes, chessed and din together. We inherited the attribute rachamim from Yaakov. Yaakov is also known for the attribute of אמת truth, because he lived his life in a perfect balance between the two poles of chessed and din.
Because Yaakov lived a perfectly balanced life, his children were all righteous. Avraham had Yishmael who took Avraham’s attribute of kindness to the absurd extreme. The Torah tells us that ידו בכל – His hand was in everything – he took anything he wanted from everyone. “Hey! You! Give me that, I want it! What do you mean you don’t want to give it to me? You have to do chessed!” Yitzchak had Esav who took Yitzchak’s attribute of din to the absurd extreme. If anybody crossed him, or did something wrong, he would immediately judge and punish him, often killing him.
Yaakov also carried the entire future of the Jewish nation within him, like the womb. All twelve of his sons went on to found the Jewish nation comprising the twelve tribes.
In this week’s portion, Toldot, we see where Yaakov was tested in the attribute of אמת – truth.
When Yitzchak attempted to give the blessing of Avraham to Esav, Yaakov had to impersonate Esav and literally steal the blessings from his father. This was a major challenge to Yaakov, whose attribute was truth, and he now had to fool his father. But Yaakov listened to his mother, who told him that Hashem told her that he had to go through this test, and he proceeded to steal the blessings. He had to endure this test without allowing it to influence his attribute of truth in any way.
In future Torah portions we will see other instances where Yaakov’s attribute of truth is challenged, and he passed them all.
We are the grandchildren of three great forefathers – Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov- who, through their hard work and great commitment and dedication to Hashem, perfected themselves in one of Hashem’s attributes. We should feel the greatest pride at the wealth that we have inherited as part of our nature, these three attributes which our forefathers worked so hard to acquire.
Just as the forefathers transmitted their exceptional attributes to their children through the work that they did on themselves, so too, when we work to perfect an attribute within ourselves, our efforts will also have a positive effect our children.