Perspectives on the Avot and Imahot

  • by: Rabbi Avishai David

Ed’s Note: The following is an approach to the question of how to present Biblical figures to our students: As larger than life or as very human. Ten Da’at invites additional perspectives and approaches.

The Ramban in his commentary on the Torah has repeatedly articulated the dictum “maaseh avot siman l’vanim”.  The footsteps of our Avot and Imahot are writ large on the pages of  Jewish history for they blazed the contours of our future.  We, their descendants, are mandated to flesh out those outlines and parameters.  They functioned in a “creative” capacity, designing the course of history; we, by precise scrutiny of their lives can glean for ourselves patterns of our history, but we are only treading in their footsteps.  A concomitant but equally significant component of this principle is the faith and strength displayed by the Avot and Imahot. Just as they confronted trials and tribulations and emerged spiritually unscathed so, too, we can be confident of our ultimate ability to survive the long night of galut and ultimately merit the geulah.
How should Jewish educators present these role models to their students? A cursory examination of the Ramban in his commentary on the Torah seems to reveal conflicting outlooks.  In parshat Hayei Sarah, the Ramban, commenting on the verse that describes Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, removing the muzzles from the camels, notes that it is impossible to conceive that the piety of Rav Pinhas Ben Yair was greater than that displayed by Avraham Avinu.  Just as the donkey of Rav Pinhas Ben Yair was afforded Heavenly protection in his diet, a fortiori, were the camels of Avraham.  This fact obviated the need to muzzle them, for a righteous person such as Avraham couldn’t possibly be subject to mishap of any sort.  In sharp contradistinction, the Ramban, in two different contexts, takes Avraham and Sarah to task.  Commenting on verse 10 in chapter 12 of Bereishit that describes Avraham going to Egypt as a consequence of a famine in Eretz Yisrael, the Ramban notes:

Know that Avraham Avinu inadvertently committed a great transgression by placing his righteous wife in a stumbling block of sin because of his fear lest they kill him; he should have relied on the Almighty that He would save him and his wife and all his possessions…. Also his departure from the land that he was commanded about at the outset, because of famine, was a sin he committed, for the Almighty in famine would redeem him from death.  Because of this incident the decree of galut in the land of Egypt at the hands of Pharaoh was imposed on his seed; the place of judgment is the place of transgression and wrong.

The Ramban, in this striking comment, has linked the exile in Egypt with the actions of Avraham.  Later (16:6), the Torah notes that Sarah afflicted Hagar, and the Ramban comments: “Our mother sinned with this act of affliction, and also Avraham by permitting her to do this.  God heard her [Hagar’s] affliction and gave her a son that would be a ‘pereh adam’ to afflict the seed of Avraham and Sarah with all types of affliction.”   Again the Ramban has connected the actions of Avraham and Sarah with the maltreatment of generations of the Jews at the hands of the descendants of Yishmael.

The Ran in his Drashot asks the following questions on the Ramban’s comment regarding the famine:  1) Later on we encounter a famine during the days of Yitzhak (26:1), and he too wanted to go to Egypt to escape the throes of the famine.  The Almighty commanded him to remain in Eretz Yisrael. The Ran asks, if Avraham’s descent to Egypt constitutes a transgression,  then why would Yitzchak want to follow such a course: ipso facto, we must assume that Yitzhak was unaware that this was tantamount to a sin and therefore chose to do so as a rational choice given the exigency of the moment.  If so, how did the Ramban know that it was a transgression?  2) Furthermore if jeopardizing his wife’s situation also constituted a transgression, why then did Yitzhak simulate this behavior?
To resolve these questions,  one must probe the aforementioned principle maaseh avot siman l’vanim.  The first seventy-five years of the life of Abraham aren’t subject to the principle of maaseh avot. Every subsequent event transcribed by the Torah has signal relevance for the future unfolding development of kneset Yisrael.  Avraham and Sarah are the roots of the tree and we are the branches and foliage.  The frenetic hakhnasat  orhim of Abraham, of  “I pray you, let a little water be brought,”  is related to the well that sustained the Jewish people in the desert; the morsel of bread given to the orhim by Abraham,  to the manna in the desert; the afflictions suffered by Pharaoh in Egypt during the days of Abraham, to the afflictions given out to Pharaoh, King of Egypt; Avraham leaving Egypt laden with material goods, to the booty taken by the Jews when they left Egypt. The footprints of the Avot and Imahot are therefore indelibly etched into our historical psyche. Therefore, even though the Ramban takes Abraham to task, once the Avotchose to act as they did, it automatically assumed the cosmic dimensions of maaseh avot siman l’vanim.  Similarly Hazal critique Yaakov in initiating the encounter with Esav, described in the beginning of parshat Vayishlah cited by the Ramban. Yet even though Yaakov could and perhaps should have chosen an alternate approach and modus operandi, once he opted for a particular methodology it became hallowed in our value system. The shtadlanut of Yaakov became a paradigm for Jews throughout their sojourn galut. 
     The query of the Ran is therefore resolved.  Even though Abraham and Yaakov should have employed a different path, the maaseh avot siman l’vanim dictated that the identical course be followed by their descendants.  Therefore, Yitzhak initially chose, during a period of famine, to follow his father until he received the Divine directive enjoining him to remain and dwell in this land. The position of the of Ramban is inherent in the precise terminology of the Midrash Rabah he cites in chapter 12, verse 10 in Bereishit: “Rabbi Pinhas in the name of Rabbi Oshaya by stated: The Almighty told Abraham, go and pave the road for your children.”  The midrash continues, “And you find that all that is written regarding Abraham is written regarding his children.”  Therefore, the Ramban suggests,  perhaps the descent to Egypt was a transgression,  but once Abraham blazed the trail, Yitzhak had to follow suit.
The superstructure that undergirds the history of kneset Yisrael was established by the Avot and Imahot and we can only understand our strengths and weaknesses by studying their lives with exceeding care.  The Ramban, throughout his commentary on Bereishit, doesn’t fail to accentuate the righteousness of the Avot and Imahot, in general, and Abraham and Sarah in particular.  The Ramban focuses on their impeccable faith and piety, their stalwart commitment and their consuming love of God.[2]

The position of the Ramban, therefore, is that even if a particular position posed by the Avot and Imahot was lacking in appropriateness, it still has eternal validity and fits into the schemata of maaseh avot siman l’vanim.  The source the kedushah of the Avot and Imahot and in their saintly character.  They were human beings who by dint of their extraordinary efforts developed and nurtured their personalities.  Ramban in his commentary on the Torah has extensively developed the Talmudic notion (Yevamot 121b) that the Almighty deals with the righteous utilizing a different barometer and standard.  Harav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Bereishit, 12:10-13) in commenting on the Ramban regarding the transgression of Abraham, poignantly notes that the Torah never defies our great leaders and tzadikim but presents them as human beings who struggled violently to achieve profound virtues.  By honestly describing their characters we are able to relate to them and view them as our role models.  It is in that vein that Hazal instruct us “A person is obligated to say, when will my actions reach those of Abraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov.”  If we view them as transcendent demigods, they will be beyond our intellectual and emotional purview.  If we view them as human beings who achieved dizzying spiritual heights through their indefatigable self-discipline,  then we can begin to comprehend their attainments. Indeed, it is a subtle distinction but a profoundly important one. It’s enormously difficult, if not well nigh impossible, to gain parity with the Avot and Imahot, but we are and instructed to attempt to reach (matay yageea) or touch their heavenly bound footsteps (Sefat Emet).  The Mishnah in Masekhet Megila (25a) states: “The episode of Tamar is read in the synagogue and translated.” It’s explained in the Talmud that one might have deemed this improper out of respect for Yehudah, but the conclusion is that the passage only redounds to his credit for it underscores the middah of confession exhibited by Yehudah.  Harav Solveitchik shlitah has, in this vein, contrasted the personalities of Yosef and Yehuda in light of a dual typology employed by the Ramban in his Shemonah Perakim.  Yosef is the “congenital tzadik and hasid” who successfully defeats the yetzer hara at every juncture. Yehuda is the courageous individual who may have faltered but ultimately rose to the challenge and as a result of those qualities merited kingship.
There exists a tendency to either portray the Avot and Imahot as angels that we cannot relate to or to depict them as finite mortals with foibles and weaknesses that we encounter daily. The first position engenders the problem described above; the second, however, reveals an egregious lack of understanding of individuals whom the Ramban often characterizes in kabbalistic terms as being “the chariot of the Almighty.”  The Ramban was able to carve out a position, which accords them the ultimate derekh eretz for their kedushah and piety, while simultaneously demonstrating their pristine humanity.  In his Guide for the Perplexed (part 3, chapter 51), the Ramban states:

When we have acquired a true knowledge of God and rejoice in that knowledge in such a manner, that while speaking to others or attending to our bodily wants, our mind is all that time with God; when we are with our heart constantly near God, even while our body is in the society of men…then we have attained not only the height of ordinary prophets, but of Moses, our teacher…The Patriarchs likewise attained this degree of perfection…. Their mind was so identified with the knowledge of God that He made a lasting covenant with each of them…. When we therefore find them also engaged in ruling others, in increasing their property, and endeavoring to obtain possession of  wealth and honor, we see in this fact a proof that when they were occupied in these things, only their bodily limbs were at work, while their heart and mind never moved away from the name of God….

One must, therefore, be extraordinarily careful not to approach the Avot with an intellectual arrogance that would equate them with everyday mortals, but simultaneously one must not catapult them to heights where any attempt to relate to them and learn from them would constitute an impediment to relatively spiritual Liliputians.  It’s a tensile balancing act that must be utilized recognizing the pitfalls in both approaches.  If we succeed however, we will achieve recognition that there is no conflict and the Avot and 1mahotwill become our guides and role models in our lives.  As the prophet Isaiah (51:1-2) expressed: “Look unto the rock from where you were hewn and to the hole of the pit from where you are digged.  Look onto Avraham your father and onto Sarah that bore you, for I called him alone and blessed him and increased him.”
RABBI DAVID is the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshivat Ohr Chaim / Ulpanat Orot High School in Downsview, Ontario.

[2] See Ramban, Bereishit, 13:13; 15:6; 17:1,22; 18:1,18,19; 21:9; 22:1; 24:32; 25:17.


See also: Zvi Grumet’s response to this article, here.