The Avot and Us – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
We are all familiar with the notion “ma’aseh avot siman lebanim”. This is generally translated as meaning that the actions of the forefathers are a symbol or sign for the children. What does this actually mean? In the following lines, we will investigate three interpretations of this concept by looking at several episodes in this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha.
Shortly after Avraham’s arrival in Eretz Yisrael, the land is struck by famine. As a result of this, Avraham and his family relocate to Egypt. The move to Egypt is accompanied by new challenges for Avraham as he ponders how he is to save his wife Sarah from being taken captive by the natives and his being killed. Avraham decides to present Sarah as being his sister. As a result, she is hurried to the king’s palace but before Pharoh is able to get close to Sarah, he and his servants are inflicted with a plague from Hashem. The episode ends when Pharoh sends Avraham and his entourage away having previously showered him with gifts.
How are we to understand these events in Avraham’s life? What are we supposed to learn from this story? Radak, in his commentary to Bereishit 12:10, explains that this was one of the tests with which Hashem tried Avraham. Only a few verses earlier, Avraham was told by Hashem to leave his homeland, travel to a “new” home where he will be made into a great nation. Yet, Avraham finds a famine is this “new” land and is forced to leave. We may have expected Avraham to question God’s motives, to wonder why it is that Hashem sent him to a land in which he cannot survive. But Avraham does not doubt Hashem; Avraham accepts the situation and relocates his family once again, his faith in God unshaken.
Ramban, on the other hand, views this episode very differently. He states that Avraham erred in his attempts to protect both Sarah and himself. He should have trusted in Hashem to look after them during their stay in Egypt. Furthermore, states the Ramban, Avraham’s descent to Mitzrayim was itself a mistake. He should have remained in the land of Israel and had faith that Hashem, on whose command he had arrived there, would ensure his survival therein. Ramban explains that the troubles that befell Avraham and Sarah in Egypt were a preview of what will happen to their descendants in Egypt several generations later. They too will leave Israel as a result of a famine and they too will suffer at the hands of the Egyptians before Hashem redeems them through miracles and they depart laden with silver and gold.
These two approaches represent different understandings of the concept “ma’aseh avot siman lebanim”. According to Radak, this phrase means that we are to learn from the actions of the Avot. The stories are there for us to read, discuss and eventually relate to our everyday lives. In the case of this episode we are to marvel at Avraham’s demonstration of faith and attempt to follow in his footsteps in our own interaction with God.
Ramban, though he may accept the notion we have ascribed to Radak, presents a rather more surprising aspect of “ma’aseh avot siman lebanim”. He believes that the actions of our forefathers are both a microcosm of Jewish history and actually have an effect on the future of their descendants. In the event described above, Ramban shows the parallel between Avraham’s time in Egypt and the latter enslavement and exodus. But he also claims that part of the cause of those troubled years was the mistake that Avraham committed by leaving Eretz Yisrael. On the one hand this demonstrates that the Avot were not just the ancestors of the children of Israel but that their lives were to form a blueprint for the history of the entire nation. On the other hand, Ramban suggests that Avraham was partially responsible for what befell Am Yisrael in later generations. We will explore this notion further by citing a second example from the parsha.
After having tried for many years to have children with Avraham, Sarah finally decides to use an alternate method to bring offspring into her home. She presents her maidservant, Hagar, to Avraham in the hope that she become pregnant and therefore bear a child which will be deemed that of Sarah. Hagar does indeed become pregnant but this becomes a source of animosity between the two women. Hagar treats Sarah with less respect and Sarah, in turn, acts harshly towards Hagar with Avraham’s permission. As a result of the suffering at the hands of Sarah, Hagar runs away. The Torah tells us how she is met by an angel of the Lord who, on the one hand instructs her to return to her mistress, Sarah, but on the other informs her that she will be rewarded with a son.
Once again, the commentators are divided as to how to view Sarah and even Avraham’s behavior throughout this episode. On this occasion, however, Radak and Ramban agree that Sarah was in the wrong for her harsh treatment of Hagar and Avraham also erred by allowing her to act in such a way. They differ as to what is to be learned from this conclusion. Radak (Bereishit 16:6) explains that “this entire story is recorded in order for one to acquire from it the correct traits and to distance oneself from those which are harmful. In contrast, Ramban ignores the moral lessons we may gain from these events. He states that “Hashem listened to her (Hagar’s) affliction and gave her a son who will be a wild man and afflict the descendants of Avraham and Sarah in all sorts of afflictions.”
As before, we see that Radak tells us what is to be gleaned from the lives of the Avot on a moral, ethical and religious plane. We learn from the Avot how to behave both as members of the human race and as followers of the Abrahamic faith. Ramban again shows how Am Yisrael’s history is intertwined with that of our forefathers and that much of what happened and continues to occur can be attributed to events which took place thousands of years ago.
The Radak’s explanation of “ma’aseh avot siman lebanim” is the most oft quoted. It is certainly simpler to understand and is the basis for much of the teachings taken from Sefer Bereishit. The notion espoused by Ramban challenges us to view our history with a fresh approach and to ponder as to the connection between one generation and another. This also raises philosophical questions as to the reason why we should be punished for errors of our forefathers but we suggest that such a discussion is beyond the scope of this shiur. We assume that the resolution lies in another concept discussed already in rabbinical literature about whether children be punished for the sins of their fathers. This debate centers around the attempt to reconcile various apparently contradicting verses in the Torah. [Shemot 20:5, Shemot 34:7 and Devarim 24:16.]
In conclusion, two final points:
1. We have quoted commentaries which attribute mistakes and even sins to our Avot and Imahot. Although these comments were made by respected, classic mefarshim, this still raises the question as to what extent it is our responsibility or right to “judge” these great people, pillars of our nation. Mori VeRabi, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, related to this question and a summary of his comments can be found here: http://www.lookstein.org/articles/chazal_criticism.htm
2. Those of you who read this shiur carefully will have noted that I stated at the outset that we will relate to three understandings of “ma’aseh avot sima lebanim” yet only two appear in the above discussion. The third idea is based on the comments of the Midrash Rabba to Bereishit 14:23. I include them below and would be interested to hear how you feel this connects to our subject.
אמר רבי אבא בר ממל:
אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: את אמרת אם מחוט, חייך! שאני נותן לבניך מצות ציצית, היך מה דאת אמר (במדבר מו) ונתנו על ציצית הכנף פתיל תכלת, ומתרגמינן חוטא דתכלתא.
ועד שרוך נעל
חייך! שאני נותן לבניך מצות יבמה, היך מה דאת אמר: (דברים כה) וחלצה נעלו מעל רגלו.
זה המשכן שהוא מצוייר בתכלת וארגמן.
ועד שרוך נעל
אלו עורות התחשים.
אלו הקרבנות, כההיא דתנן: וחוט של סקרא חוגרו באמצ, להבדיל בין דמים העליונים לדמים התחתונים.
ועד שרוך נעל
אלו פעמי רגלים, היך מה דאת אמר (שיר ו) מה יפו פעמיך בנעלים.
Comments and questions are welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org