Yevamot 79 - 85
Our Family’s Nature
King David said, “There are three characteristics that distinguish the Jewish People: they are merciful, bashful (i.e. ashamed of sin), and do many great acts of kindness.”
When the Givonites came to King David to join the Jewish People, they demanded the execution of King Shaul’s seven sons for causing them great suffering. King David outright refused to hear their claim. He considered them as being lacking in mercy and therefore not fit to become part of the Jewish nation. As he explained, “Only one who has these three essential Jewish characteristics (mercy, shame and kindness) is fit to be attached to our people.”
There are two schools of thought in considering the perpetuation of these three essential and defining traits in the history and eternal identification of the Jewish nation.
One way of understanding the origin of these traits is taught by the Maharal of Prague. He writes that each of these traits was mastered and personified by one of our Forefathers, and subsequently passed down as an inheritance to each member of the Jewish People throughout history. Avraham Avinu embodied and exemplified the trait of chesed — loving-kindness. He is the father of every Jew in both a physical and spiritual sense. In a similar way, Yitzchak Avinu personified the trait of awe of Hashem and fear of Hashem, which translates into a sense of shame and guilt felt when transgressing the will of Hashem. Yaakov Avinu’s outstanding quality was that of rachamim — mercy. According to the Maharal, the three nation-defining characteristics are to be seen as an inheritance from Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and, so to speak, are all part of “Jewish DNA.”
However, the Maharsha offers a different explanation for the presence of these traits in the Jewish nation. While it is true that Hashem testified that the Avraham Avinu would pass on to his posterity a legacy of chesed, the other two attributes were special gifts from Hashem to the Jewish nation. We see this in two verses in the Torah. “He will endow you with a capacity for being merciful” teaches that the quality of rachamim is a special gift from Hashem. (Devarim 13:18) Likewise, the quality of bushah and being in awe of Hashem was a unique gift from above that was given to the Jewish people with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. (Shemot 20:17)
In any event — whether a particular characteristic is an inheritance of a gift — each person has the choice and free will whether or not to accept and fully apply each of these essential qualities in daily life.
- Yevamot 79a