Another Perspective on the Avot and Imahot

  • by: Zvi Grumet
  • Submitted on August 7, 2016



In the Spring 1991 issue of Ten Da’at, Avishai David took a bold step forward by opening for us the thorny issue of teaching about the Avot and Imahot. Indeed, we owe him gratitude for his insights and thoughts. As the editor’s prefatory note indicates, however, additional perspectives and approaches are invited and, may I add, needed. Relying almost entirely on the Ramban’s notion of ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim, Rabbi David treads very carefully, willing to admit human fallibility of the Avot, while maintaining that “even though Ya’akov could and perhaps should have chosen a different modus operandi [regarding his confrontation with Esav], once he opted for a particular methodology it became hallowed in our value system.” Similarly, he suggests, “Perhaps the descent to Egypt was a transgression. Once Avraham blazed the trail, Yitzhak had to follow suit.” [2]

A closer reading of the Ramban (and the midrashim which serve as his foundation) yield, I believe, a different approach regarding this particular point. Generally, “ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim is understood by the Ramban as a predictive principle (that is, that the actions of the Avot and the consequences of those actions will, perforce, be repeated in history), and not as a prescriptive one (meaning, that their descendants should follow in the footsteps of their forefathers) [3] . The only exception is that of Ya’akov, where Hazal inform us that Ya’akov should not have instigated Esav, but he at least compensated for his error in his modus operandi. The message for eternity is not to be understood as, “from now on we are to ‘start up’ with Esav”s descendants” (as Rabbi David would have us believe) rather, “once we are already involved with Esav’s descendants, how should we go about dealing with the situation.” [4]

Would anyone dare to suggest that the terrible galut in Mitzrayim, which the Ramban ascribes to (read: blames on) Avraham’s trip to Mitzrayim [5] , was something that we should strive to repeat again in our history? The actions of the Avot may indeed be predictive of our own destiny, but it is difficult to claim that once they erred (as the Ramban and others do not hesitate to point out that they did), their “particular methodology, become[s] hallowed in our value system.” Particularly troublesome is Rabbi David’s need for the principle of ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim to learn lessons from the Avot. Why can’t the Avot simply serve as role models, without resorting to mystical principles? If we, indeed, assume that this principle is the foundation of our learning lessons from our forefathers, does that imply that, since Moshe Rabbenu, Shmuel HaNavi and David HaMelekh were not Avot that we can’t learn lessons from them? [6]


Before we proceed to suggest an alternate approach to the Avot, we must be willing to ask ourselves a critical question. Why are we afraid to ascribe human weakness and fallibility to the Avot? Do we think that we would not be able to learn from the Avot if they were mortals? Rabbi David rightly notes that this reasoning rings hollow. “If we view them [the Avot] as transcendent demigods, they will be beyond our intellectual and emotional purview.” This being the case, why are we so unnerved by the notion that the Avot were human, with strengths and weaknesses, who strove to overcome their weaknesses while capitalizing on their strengths? Are the foundations of our belief so shaky that we must immortalize those who preceded us to justify ourselves? Are we so insecure that discovering a blemish in our forefathers would shatter the religious edifices we have constructed? (Indeed, a brief survey of current popular biographies of Torah luminaries, both present and past, reveals a tendency to portray them as anything but human.)

If we validate our beliefs based not on the conviction of our own convictions and understanding, but solely on the authenticity and authority of our predecessors, then we can certainly understand the need to perceive and portray those predecessors as infallible for any fault of theirs reveals our own weaknesses.

Perhaps it is because we live in an age of general irreverence for authority and irreverence for religion, that we feel a need to hold on to the she’eirit ha’pleitah, the last vestige of that which we hold as sacred. Perhaps, as our halakhic and theological systems have come under attack we have responded defensively, by standing on the shoulders of our forefathers, our Avot, establishing them as unquestionably correct in all of their actions, motivations and beliefs.

A variation on the above would read as follows: If our Avot can err, then surely so can Hazal. If Hazal can err, then why should people listen to them? After all, any particular decision of theirs might be in error!! Hence, we must maintain the Avot as infallible in order to protect our halakhic system and respect for the authority of Hazal. (This logic, of course, is flawed in many ways. The authority of Hazal does not emanate from their inability to be wrong, rather, from a Divine decree that they have authority even if their decision goes against God’s original intent.) [7]

If either of the above motivations is true, then we must investigate whether our perceptions of our national and religious heroes are, indeed, accurate, or self-made images created to satisfy our own needs. Indeed, young children need to see their parents (and all of their heroes) as infallible. It requires emotional maturity to recognize that our parents do, in fact, make mistakes, yet that does not detract from our feelings of love and admiration for them. Perhaps we need to be religiously mature to accept the fallibility of our Avot, without letting that awareness detract from our reverence of them.


In light of the above, let us then ask the question anew. How are we to view, and to teach about the Avot? Let it be clear that it is critical to distinguish between two issues, which are obviously different, but are all too often confused. One is the issue of how to perceive the Avot themselves were they in fact super-humans or merely inspired mortals. The second is an educational issue—despite who the Avot really were, how should we be presenting them to our students?

We must not scoff at the separation of these two issues, or at the formulation of the educational question. In halakha we sometimes employ the principle halakha v’ein morin kein just because the halakha is a certain way does not necessarily mean it should be taught as such. Sometimes, educational issues take precedence over determination of absolute truth. Even were we to discover that the Avot were humans with many weaknesses, is it appropriate to teach that notion to our students? Perhaps our students need to believe that the Avot were infallible. The two issues are by no means synonymous, although resolution of one may help us resolve the other. Perhaps the most critical issue relates to the role of d’rash within our learning of Torah SheBikhtav. If we accept d’rash as the only authoritative interpretation of the text, then we have no question regarding the Avot, for we can selectively learn only those midrashim that will support the perspective we wish to present. [8] If, on the other hand, we go back to the Gemara’s principle of ein mikra yotzei miydei peshuto [9] , then it becomes more complicated. The straight readings of many pesukim (the p’shat) seem to point to mistakes and failings of the Avot (for example: Yitzhak’s choice of Esav for a blessing, Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, Avraham’s declaration to Avimelekh, and many others). Indeed, as was noted by Rabbi David, the Ramban does not hesitate to criticize Avraham and Sarah when he deems it appropriate, and other parshanim champion the cause of p’shat in the face of d’rash (lbn Ezra, Rashbam, Ibn Caspi, Bekhor Shor, and others), even if it means finding fault with the Avot.

What we must always keep in mind, that the Torah chose to tell us these particular stories about our Avot, even when they are apparently uncomplimentary. Had the Torah wanted to whitewash them and present them as pristine models, it would have done so in a manner that would be undeniably clear to all. This is not the case. The very tales that the Torah chooses to relate are the ones God thought would be instructive to us, and it is our job to discover the message(s) in each anecdote. Rather than see the stories of the Avot as problems to which answers must be found, we must see those very stories as God’s plea with us to look even more carefully at the text and discover the message hidden therein. If we find ourselves engaging in apologetics or looking for ways to justify the actions of the Avot, then we have clearly missed the point. If, on the other hand, we see anomalies and problems as clues to a greater idea, then we’ve begun to hear the song of the Torah.

For example, regarding the differing accounts of the creation of man [10] , Rashi suggests (according to the p’shat) that the first account is merely the abbreviated version of what comes later. This is a reasonable justification of two, apparently contradictory, texts, but does not leave us with a message (which may be why Rashi felt a need to also quote the d’rash). In his exposition of Adam I and is Adam II, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik not only resolves the contradiction, but highlights the fact that the contradiction had to be written to teach us about the two typologies of man. [11]

The Torah, therefore, (even in its style) is dynamic not static. Clearly, one of the central themes in the Torah is that of development and growth, starting with the development and growth of the world itself at the beginning of Breishit [12] . The Torah is, therefore, a model for our own growth. This being the case, finding the Avot occasionally stumbling on their path toward their own development is exactly what we would expect to find. Rather than feel compelled to “explain away” these “stains” on their reputation, we should eagerly and joyously grasp at the opportunity to understand why and how they fell and how they grew through the experience, not (God forbid) for the purpose of denigrating them, rather, so that we can learn from them. The Avot are a reflection of each and every one of us and we of them, and the lessons gleaned from their misfortunes, along with their successes, are our national and religious treasures, earned and learned the hard way.

It is no accident that Avraham starts out as Avram—his name is changed after two parashiot of development. It is no accident that the blessings given to Avram/Avraham change continually as he changes. It is also no accident that Ya’akov needs more than two parashiot of development, making many mistakes along the way and learning from those mistakes, before he is called Yisrael, whose name we carry to this day. In fact, it is only after his name is changed a second time that God Himself confirms Yisrael’s worthiness of the b’rakha. Even Ramban’s mystical quote describing the Avot as “the chariot of the Almighty [13] ” fits this pattern, for the Torah text which originally sparked this comment and was the catalyst for this idea appears only after Avram becomes Avraham [14] and after Ya’akov becomes Yisrael [15] and, not surprisingly, is conspicuously missing regarding Yitzhak, who never undergoes a name change.


The Avot, then, rather than being pristine angels or corrupt mortals, are humans involved in a desperate struggle to rise above their weaknesses, occasionally stumbling along the way but learning from their errors, eventually reaching dizzying heights. They are paradigms, not of human perfection, but of the struggle for that perfection. They are the models the Torah has set for us, showing us that we too can overcome obstacles in our own, individual paths. We too can, if we want, achieve great moral and spiritual stature, and we need not tread that path alone nor blaze our own paths. Our Avot have been there already, and they are ready to accompany us on our own journeys.

At this point, the only educational question is not whether to present the Avot to our students as the Torah presents them to us but when to do so. Young children need heroes. Young children need the security of infallible and perfect parents. It can be argued that they need to see the same way. Yet as our students mature emotionally, they need to mature religiously as well. When appropriate [16] they should be encouraged to take a fresh look at their heroes. In the course of their own struggles with frustration and disillusionment, they will achieve a greater and deeper appreciation of their Avot. With proper guidance, they will gain a new understanding of the models set by their forefathers, and recognize with greater clarity how relevant those models are to their own lives.

Can we afford not to show our students the true greatness of those who came before them? We dare not.


Zvi Grumet was Chairman of the Bible department at the Hillel Yeshiva in Ocean, New Jersey, and teaches at Drisha Institute and Columbia University’s Beit Midrash

[2] Regarding Yitzhak’s following in Avraham’s footsteps, nowhere in the midrash or the Ramban could I find the suggestion that   Yitzhak was doing so as a result of maaseh avot siman l’vanim. In fact the Tanhuma understands that the era of the banim starts with Ya’akov’s children. Yitzhak, no matter how similar his behavior may be to Avraham’s, is an av and not a ben.

[3] See Ramban on Breishit 12:6, 14:1, 32:26, 33:18, 48:22, and Introduction to Sh’mot. See also Tanhuma on Breishit, Lekh Lekha 9.

[4] See Ramban on Breishit 12:10.

[5] See Ramban on Breishit 12:6.

Further on this issue, Rabbi David extends the principle ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim to Yosef and Yehudah. To the best of my knowledge, this principle applies exclusively to Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov (see Ramban ibid.) as they, and they alone, are called Avot

[6] Ramban’s kabbalistic description of the Avot as “the chariot of the Almighty” (Breishit 17:22) was quoted by Rabbi David to establish the “kedushah and piety” of the Avot, yet he never ventures to explain what the quote actually means. How can an unexplained concept be cited as a prooftext? In fact, Ramban’s comment was actually made to limit the concept to the Avot, as opposed to Rashi, who generalized the notion to all tzadikim. I believe that a careful analysis will reveal that the Ramban’s comment has nothing at all to do the “kedushah and piety” of the Avot, but with a much deeper and more profound idea relating to the uniqueness of each of the Avot and their role in the unfolding of Divine revelation. This, however, is not the appropriate forum for that discussion

[7] See Bava Metzia 59b

[8] I emphasize the word selectively. Many midrashim do not hesitate to find fault with the Avot. Even Rashi, who generally tends to give our role models in Tanakh the benefit of the doubt, sometimes finds it necessary to quote opposing opinions. For example, see Rashi on Bamidbar 11:22

[9] Shabbat 63a

[10] Breishit 1:26 and 2:6,21-24; and Rashi on 1:26

[11] I was delighted to find a beautiful articulation of this approach in Mordechai Breuer’s Pirkei Mo’adot, Jerusalem: Horev Publications, 1989

[12] In Breishit the focus is on personal growth, in Sh’mot and Bamidbar on national growth. Perhaps ma’aseh avot siman 1’va.nim is what connects the two.

[13] Breishit 17:22. See note 5

[14] Avram’s name is changed in Breishit 17:5, the Torah text which sparked Ramban’s comment appears fifteen verses later in 17:22

[15] Ya’akov’s name is changed in Breishit 35:10. The Torah text identical to the one which originally inspired Ramban’s comment regarding the Avot can be found in 35:13.

 [16] The question of when it is appropriate to introduce this is a difficult one, and I do not propose to have the solution. Perhaps, somewhere between grades 7 and 9 the teacher should respond to students’ questioning of Biblical figures with an openness to sensitively introducing the possibility of imperfections in our forefathers, again while explaining the implications of this approach. In grades 9-12, where critical thinking is (or certainly should be) introduced to the students in other disciplines and their ability to analyze and conceptualize is developing, the teacher should not wait for the students to sense “problems,” rather the teacher should introduce the students to a deeper understanding of their forefathers, and actively expose them to the ideas discussed above. It is not inappropriate for the teacher to actively engage students in an open discussion of the issue itself. Such discussions can be rather fruitful, yielding insights into the students themselves. In my own experience I have discovered four typical groups of students: 1- Students who have always questioned the Avot and were unsatisfied with automatic justification of their actions. 2- Students who need to justify the Avot, and are offended by attempts to sully their pristine reputations. 3- Students who are truly in a quandary, unsure as to where they stand on the issue. 4- Students who don’t even recognize that there is an issue to be dealt with. Open discussions allow students to share their views and recognize opinions other than their own, while still disagreeing respectfully with those opinions.

The benefit of these discussions varies from group to group. The first group appreciates the teacher’s “honesty” and is able to maintain (or gain newfound) respect for the Avot without compromising their own intellectual integrity. They are the greatest beneficiaries of these discussions as they discover that they are not considered “outside” the realm of accepted

Jewish learning, and develop stronger, rather than weaker attachments to Torah. The second group will recognize the need to continually reinterpret the text to fit their preconceived notions of the Avot, and will either modify those preconceptions or redouble their efforts in “defense” of their heroes. If the teacher does not insist on imposing his/her own understanding on those students and encourages them to support their opinions, then not only will they gain from the experience, but they may very well impact upon their peers’ reverence for the Avot. The third group will at least gain greater clarity through listening to and participating in the discussions, and may begin to form opinions in line with either of the first two groups. The fourth group gain the least from the discussion, but will at least recognize that there is something that they don’t understand.

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