Lines of Lineage – Rav Shames
Parshat Lech Lecha is generally seen as the start of a new era. Up until this point, for the last two weeks, we have studied the stories of Adam and Noach and have gleaned the messages from them. This week we embark on the “real thing”, the stories of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. As a matter of fact the very title “Avot”- forefathers- is viewed only to point to Avraham but not to his father or grandfather.
At first glance it would seem that we are applying very selective memory. We all grew up on the stories about the Idol Shop of Terach, Avraham’s father, and how Avraham, the discoverer of monotheism reeked havoc in his father’s business and pointed out how silly pagan idol worship is. When we hear the story from a very young age we scoff and snicker at the “silly Terech” who simply was unable to comprehend what every kindergarten child gets quite clearly.
We drive a solid stake through the lines of lineage as we proudly brag of being from the stock of Avraham, while we conveniently ignore the fact that he too had a father whose gene pool we take part of. Why is it that we manipulate the simplest facts as we do?
In order to answer this question we need to focus on the term “Avot” and figure out what it really means. The most basic definition is our genetic father. This of course is the meaning of the term in the Ten Commandments where we are instructed to respect our father and mother. In this case the intent is the direct couple that produced us and gave birth to us.
There is much literature concerning this point and how narrowly or widely it is to be defined. For instance what is the status of surrogate parenthood? Who is defined as the “real” father or mother, is it the one who provided the “raw material” or the one in whose womb the baby developed? On the other side of the coin is the discussion as to grandparents. Is there an obligation of Kibbud Av V’eim with regards to grandparents? And if so is it of the same level as to parents?
From all of this we see that the core definition in this case is “parent” and it is simply a question of how far we can stretch the boundaries of it.
This seems to be what stands behind the original thought of the Gemara in Brachot. The Gemara quotes a Braita that states “We only refer to three people as Avot and to four as Imahot”. (According to Rashi the term “only” is meant to indicate that we do not refer to the subsequent generations, such as the 12 tribes, with such titles.) The Gemara goes on to question this idea by asking why we do not refer to the tribes as our “Avot” and assumes it is because we are not certain which one is our forefather. The Gemara rejects this explanation based on the end of our Braita which says that we refer to four women as our mothers, and in this case we are not sure whether we are from Rachel or Leah and none the less both are described as our mothers.
We will revisit the rest of this Gemara in a moment but for now it is clear that the underlying assumption of the Gemara is that the terms are biological in nature.
The Gemara then offers us an alternative understanding of the term Avot/Imahot. What is meant by the title is an individual of importance. In the context of the three fathers and four mothers we are being told that the really important people in our past are these and these only. This idea of Avot=Important is expressed in the continuation of the Braita – “Slaves and maids should not be referred to as ‘Abba such and such’ or ‘Ima such and such'”. What is meant by this statement?
Rashi seems to indicate that we are referring to a title of respect. He writes “[the prohibition of calling them Aba/Ima] is not referring to their actual children but rather to others. Other people should not address them as they would regular citizens as ‘Aba such and such’ or ‘Ima such and such'”. It seems that the standard method of respect was to add Aba/Ima when addressing upstanding citizens. The slave on the other hand does not merit such a title.
Rashi’s explanation seems in context with the original source of the Braita as it appears in Mesechet Smachot 1/13 where it is brought up in the context of how to comfort one upon the death of their slave. We are told not to use the standard formula and practice of consoling mourners but rather one is to relate to the situation as one would relate to the loss of a major economic asset. The entire context of discussion revolves around the level of “citizen rights” that the slave does or rather does not enjoy.
(It is interesting to note that the Braita leaves room for making an exception to the rule if one feels that their slave is unique, as Rabban Gamliel felt about his slave, and allows for regular consolation as if to a close member of the family.)
[For more on this issue see Rambam Hilchot Nachalot 4/5 who offers a very different interpretation. He writes that the sons of the master should not refer to the slave as “Aba” lest one come to think that the slave is the actual biological parent and treat the child as such with regards to their personal status and inheritance laws. I also think we can offer another explanation based on the Rambam in Hilchot Mamrim 5/11 where we read that a slave has no legal binding relationship with his father as far as Kibbud Av is concerned. Based on this the Gemara may have indeed referred to the slaves children as having the obligation to refer to him as “Aba” (as opposed to Rashi above)].
This seems to be the understanding of another Gemara that also relates to this week’s parsha – (Brachot 13a):
“Avram is Avraham – At first he was Av to Aram (Av Aram=Avram) and later he became Av to the entire world (Av Haolam=Avraham)”.
The term Av in this Gemara is clearly not referring to any biological connection but rather to a leadership quality and is expressed in the next line about his spouse:
“Sarai was a ‘sar’ minister/leader to her own nation and later became a minister/leader to the whole world.”
We have seen thus far two explanations for the term Av:
- Biological father
- Term of respect (not limited to ones gene pool)
There is a third and more obvious understanding of the term. If we take a look at the original text of the Braita in Mesechet Smachot it reads differently than the way it is quoted in the Gemara in Brachot. The Gemara said “only three are referred to as Avot and only four are referred to as Imahot”. The Braita, as it appears in the standard version reads “we only refer to Avot as Avinu (OUR father) for the three and we only refer to Imahaot as Imainu (OUR mother) for the four”. (While some commentaries write off this difference in text as simply a typo, I believe that it indicates a new view on the subject.)
This reading of the Braita basically means that we are not at all interested in the question of the term Avot/Imahot but rather the possessive form, and it is this form and title that are reserved for Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.
I believe the implication is that we are not simply dealing with lineage but in creation of a feeling of intimacy and family. The reference to these ancestors as “ours” connects us to them and, maybe even more importantly, connects us to each other. We share a common individual who has been central in the formation of who we are.
When we read these parshiot we are to feel as though we are leafing through the old family album while sitting next to our cousins imagining what our Zaida was going through.
I believe that this is the crux of the debate in the end of Bikkurim relating to the complicated status of a convert vis-à-vis the standard amida. May a convert say “The God of our Forefathers” and all other references to historical events in the first person possessive?
The Tannaim debated the point but the Rambam clearly ruled that a convert may use the standard formulation. In a passionate letter to Rav Ovadiah (the convert), the Rambam explains that once an individual has joined Am Yisrael he now looks upon Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as the “Zaida” and may proudly use the term Avinu.