How Our Forefathers’ Merit Helps Us

I see we often ask in our prayers that God remember the righteousness of our ancestors and as a result treat us mercifully. I'd like to understand how this works. Just because Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were righteous we should get special treatment? Likewise, a non-Jew who does not have the same illustrious lineage is automatically treated worse – through no fault of his own? What is the justice behind that?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your important question. You are right that at first glance this appears like favoritism – giving Israel an automatic advantage because of their ancient history. But there is actually a profound message and life lesson behind it.

In the Ten Commandments, the Torah states that God does kindness to the descendants of those who love and fear Him for 2000 generations (Exodus 20:6). This no doubt is why the merit of our ancestors is so significant to us. But how does this work? Why would descendants thousands of years later be entitled to this free gift, having done nothing themselves to earn it?

In fact, however, it is not an automatic gift. The Talmud occasionally refers to times in which “the merit of the forefathers has ended” – times (well before 2000 generations) in which the merit of our ancestors will no longer help us. (See e.g. Talmud Shabbat 55a.) Thus, this merit is something we are not granted automatically. We must earn it. How does this work?

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler was one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. He explains by way of a parable. Imagine two young men are brought before a judge, both for petty theft. One comes from a loving, stable home — both biological parents, healthy family life, high level of education, comfortable standard of living, etc. His parents (or Sesame Street) taught him sharing, cooperation and fair play. The other comes from a broken, dysfunctional home — drugs, alcohol, unemployment, domestic abuse, etc. What is the proper and fitting punishment for each of these youths?

Well, there are really two ways of looking at it. On the one hand, the man with the deficient upbringing is less culpable for his sins. He hardly knew better. He was never raised with personal integrity and good behavior, and had fewer if any proper role models to follow.

The well-raised child, however, should have known better — and in many ways bears more responsibility for failing to follow the footsteps of his decent and well-meaning parents.

But there is an entirely different way of looking at it — and really the crucial one for the true judge (or True Judge) who wants not only to punish but to instruct and enlighten. A child of stable upbringing knows what goodness and proper behavior are. He grew up with them. Even if he has fallen out himself, it might take only a small amount of prodding and positive reinforcement to help him grow into such a way of life himself.

The one, however, who never even saw good behavior will be much harder put to adopt it himself. Much more basic retraining may be necessary till he can adopt it as his nature.

Thus, how would our two defendants be punished? On the one hand the one with the good upbringing deserves a harsher punishment. He failed to live up to the examples he had right before him. And in fact, over their history the Jewish people seemed to have endured more punishments than many other nations.

If however, that same person shows some inclination towards his parents’ ways – that he has not entirely rejected his parents and still feels their influence, there is room for great leniency. Perhaps just a little nudge, some positive reinforcement will help bring him back to his roots – to the good behavior patterns which are still there, embedded deeply in his soul.

This, on a much broader scale, is the notion of the merit of our forefathers. We inherited from our ancestors so many incredible good qualities – Abraham’s hospitality, his commitment to spreading the faith, his special attachment to the Land of Israel, Isaac’s willingness to give his life for God, Jacob’s adherence to truth, and so many more.

But again, this is not an automatic bequeathment. If we show these mean something to us today, we will have inherited an incredible legacy of goodness, and that will stand in our favor. But if we ignore them, then the accusation against us, God forbid, will be even stronger.

(Sources: Ruach Chaim 5:3, Michtav Mei’Eliyahu I pp. 8-14.)

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