The Greatness of Innovation
In the midst of the devastating rebuke, God comforts us, saying: "And I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and even my covenant with Isaac, and I will even remember my covenant with Abraham." (1) The obvious question here is, why were the Forefathers mentioned in reverse order?
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains that the merit of Jacob, who is the 'smallest' of the Forefathers should suffice, but if it does not, then Isaacs's merit should hopefully suffice, and if that is not enough, then Abraham's great merit will surely be sufficient.(2) Thus Jacob is mentioned first because the Forefathers are mentioned in ascending order of merit.
There are two ways in which we can understand the meaning of Jacob being the 'smallest' of the Forefathers: Some translate it to mean the 'youngest', but a number of commentaries write that it means he is the lowest in the spiritual sense.(3) The problem with this explanation is that the rabbinic sources tell us that Jacob was the greatest of the Forefathers, the only one whose progeny was completely righteous, whereas Abraham and Isaac had descendants who would not merit to be part of the Jewish people. Accordingly, how can we understand that Jacobs's merit in redeeming the Jewish people from their suffering is weaker than those of Abraham and Isaac? It also needs to be explained why Abraham is considered greater than Isaac in this context.
It seems that the fact that Jacob may have been the most perfect of the Forefathers in terms of character traits does not necessarily mean that he had the greatest merit. Merit is derived from achievement in relation to the difficulty of one's task. It is possible to argue that while Jacob reached the highest level of the Forefathers, he did in fact have an easier task than his great predecessors. In what way was Jacob's task easier than that of Isaac and that of Isaac easier than Abraham's? Abraham was born into a world of Idol worship; his great challenge was to create from nothing a whole new outlook and way of life, to begin a new epoch in history.(4) To do such a thing constituted an incredible test, because it meant that he had to fight against all the prevalent attitudes and lifestyles, and begin something on a very lowly scale and slowly and patiently develop it.
Isaac was born into a world in which the new outlook had already been created - he did not need to create any novel life approach. However, Rav Mattisyahu Salomon writes that he did have to create one thing - the concept of religious Tradition; that a son faithfully follows the guidelines set by his father.(5) Jacob, in contrast, did not have to begin a new religion or the concept of following a Tradition - he clearly faced great challenges in his life but in this regard he seems to have had an easier task than his forebears. Thus, although Jacob was the greatest of the Forefathers, his merit in redeeming the people from suffering is less.(6)
Rav Salomon speaks at length about out how one of Abraham's main strengths was his power of 'hitchadshut' - his ability to innovate.(7) He notes that in the Rambam's description of Abraham's contribution to the world it he uses the root word, 'matchil' (begin), no less than five times in quick succession.(8) In Rav Salomon's own words: "Abraham was a 'matchil', a person who began things. He was a revolutionary, a pioneer ... He was the originator and founder of the Jewish people. Abraham was the first in everything he did. He had no father that he could follow, and thus, he was always breaking new ground." (9) When trying to emulate Abraham we traditionally strive to learn from his great trait of kindness. We learn from here that his ability at initiation, is also a trait that needs to be developed.
The Kli Yakar also places great emphasis on the greatness of innovation. In the Portion of Bereishit, in the account of every day of the seven days of creation the Torah concludes with a description that it was 'good' or 'very good', with the exception of the second day. A number of explanations are given as to this anomaly - the Kli Yakar writes that nothing completely new was created on the second day therefore it cannot be described as being 'good'.(10) It is apparent from this interpretation that something is described as good when it is associated with newness.
There are a number of ways in which the ability to innovate is important in our lives. It is natural for a person to get into a habit of how he conducts his life, with regard to many aspects of his life, including his growth in Torah and character traits, his relationships, and his ability to create and build. There are times when it is beneficial to step back and assess whether there is a necessity for a new approach in these areas. New approaches often provide alternative ways of dealing with situations and can meet with great success. An example of this is told over by a leading educator in the area of marriage. There was a woman who was highly dissatisfied with her husband's behavior and eventually decided that she wanted a divorce. This educator suggested to her, that before she take such a drastic step, she should try a new approach - she should focus completely on her own behavior and strive to be as good a wife as possible. Within a very short time of following this instruction, she saw a drastic change in her husband. Her willingness to try a new approach was the key to a huge improvement in her marriage.
One of the most important areas in which innovation is so important is the creation and development of new ideas, movements, or organizations that can provide great benefit for the world. A tremendous example of this is that of Sara Schenirer - her idea of a Torah oriented educational structure for females was revolutionary at the time. Nonetheless, she had the vision and persistence to continue with her innovative idea and in doing so, had an incredible effect on the Jewish people.
Another proof that new beginnings can be very beneficial is that the negative inclination makes it very difficult to push through with a new start,(11) which is the reasoning behind the concept that 'all beginnings are difficult. As well as taking on a new approach, it is essential to be willing to see it through to the end despite the challenges that one may face in the process.
Abraham may not be described as the 'greatest' of the Forefathers, but in the area of innovation he certainly leads the way. May we all merit to learn from him and make successful new beginnings when they are called for.
1. Bechukosai, 26:42.
2. Rashi, ibid. Torah Kohanim, 26:49.
3. See Maskil L'David, 24:42; R'Yaakov M'Lisa (the author of Chavos Daas and Nesivos) quoted in B'shem Amru.
4. Indeed the Gemara, Avoda Zara, 9a, says that Jewish history is divided into three epochs of two thousand years each - the first is the period of nothingness, the second is the period of Torah - that period begins with Abraham's efforts at spreading Torah throughout the world.
5. Matnos Chaim, p.30.
6. It should of course be noted that Jacob surely placed challenges that would appear as incredibly daunting to any onlooker - we are merely positing that in relation to Abraham and Isaac in the area of novelrt, his task was easier.
7. Ibid. p.29.
8. Hilchos Avoda Zara, Ch.1, halacha 3.
9. Ibid. p.29-30.
10. Kli Yakar, Bereishis, 1:8.
11. It is a useful life principle that anything that is genuinely important is difficult to complete because the yetser hara fights very strongly from preventing it from succeeding.