Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 17 November 2018 / 9 Kislev 5779

Patriarchs and Matriarchs

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Julian

Dear Rabbi,

Was there any special reason why those specific individuals known as the Forefathers became the founders of the Jewish People? Was it something in their lineage or heritage? If so, why them and at that time, and not others at a different time? Or perhaps it was something in their specific historical and societal context? What significance do they have to Judaism and to the Jewish People?

Dear Julian,

The Patriarchs: Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov; and Matriarchs: Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah, were certainly not just individuals who randomly appeared on the historical scene to create the movement which has had greater impact on humanity than any other movement in world history.

Rather, according to the lineage recorded in the Torah, they were all part of the direct line from Adam through his son Shet (Seth) to Noach, and from Noach’s son Shem through Ever, culminating in the sons of Terach: Avram (who became Avraham), Nachor and Haran. It was through this line alone that the spiritual legacy from G-d to Adam was transmitted in an unbroken chain to Avraham from his illustrious ancestors.

And this legacy was received and preserved by all the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, insofar as they were all related, since Avraham and his brother Nachor married the daughters of their brother Haran: Avraham married Haran’s daughter Yiscah who was also called Sarai (later Sarah). And Nachor married Haran’s daughter Milcah, whose granddaughter Rivka (through Betuel) was married to Yitzchak; and whose great-granddaughters, Rivka’s nieces, Rachel and Leah (through Betuel’s son Lavan) were married to Yaakov.

So the fact that these individuals became the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to the exclusion of anyone else from any other nation in the world was precisely because of their specific lineage and heritage. And it would seem that the reason this particular group of people emerged at their particular place within that lineage has to do with the exceptional righteousness of Avraham, who catalyzed and precipitated for himself, and those associated with him, Gd’s awaited introduction to humanity.

Of course, the role and influence of the Forefathers and mothers is of central importance to Judaism and the Jewish People. They were the forbearers and foundation of the Nation. Of the many profound ways in which their lives and teachings made this impact, one is related to the unique character traits for which each is extolled. Avraham excelled in the attribute of chesed — lovingkindess; Yitzchak, gevurah — self-control; Yaakov, rachamim — mercy, balance. And regarding the Matriarchs, Sarah was uniquely insightful; Rivka, wise; Rachel, sacrificing; and Leah, generous. These elevated attributes were bequeathed to, and are emulated by, their progeny till this day.

In truth, that their influence on Judaism and the Jewish People was so pervasive and all-encompassing is reflected in the fact that their names give rise to and comprise the name of our Nation — Israel. Yitzchak and Yaakov begin with the letter yod; Sarah, sin; Rivka and Rachel, reish; Avraham, alef; Leah, lamed — together: ישראל.

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