Zechus Avos- The Merit of the Patriarchs (Feb 2011)

In an email last week a good friend and teacher had written a word I did not know. The word was “zekhus”. I looked it up and discovered that it is usually translated as “merit”. It was no surprise to me therefore, that it was the idea of zechut avot which then leapt out at me for comment when I was studying Parshas Ki Sissa this week.

Some use the term zechus avos to refer to the merits of our physical ancestors, some to our spiritual ancestors and some use it to refer specifically to the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The term is usually (but not exclusively) developed in one of two ways: in the concept that the good deeds of those who have gone before us -in our blood-line or in our our religious faith- are our exemplars; and in the notion that our individual imperfections and inadequacies can be made up for (to some extent) if we invoke the good deeds of the tzaddikim who went before us.

All the classical sources of our tradition see the Three Patriarchs as symbols. For example, if we are thinking of the Patriarchs as being our exemplars: we are reminded that they are representatives of Chesed, Yirah and Emes respectively. If we are thinking of the Patriarchs as denoting a conceptual inheritance, they might be viewed as the founders of the liturgical system which elevates our own private prayers: we are reminded that they are symbols for the formal liturgy of Shacharis, Minchah, and Ma’ariv.(Berachot 26b).

When Moses and Elijah really wanted something- they “reminded” God of His love for the Patriarchs and the promises He made to them. They are not so much invoking the good deeds of the Patriarchs as the Goodness of God. In Exodus 32: 13, Moses is pleading for God’s mercy on the entire nation and he reminds God not of the “merits” of the Patriarchs but of God’s covenantal promise to them. Moses pleads:

“Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give to your seed, and they shall inherit it forever.”
Exodus 32:13
It is especially significant that Moses  acted with humility in not bargaining with his own merits or making promises of his own. Moses called upon the memory of God in His relationship to the Patriarchs because in doing so, he was pointing out that the Nation’s election was born of a personal love between God Himself and three devoted pioneers.

The prayer of Moses is immediately successful as we read, one verse later:
“And the Lord repented of the evil which He said he would do to His people.”
Exodus 32:14

In Haftarah Ki Sissa-On Mount Carmel during the contest with the Prophets of Baal, Elijah declares his own merits (or rather his conviction that he was blessed with true prophecy) but precedes his prayer for assistance by invoking the memory of the Patriarchs:

"Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word."
I Kings 18:36

He too receives his positive response from God, and equally rapidly, two verses later.

Whatever is “going on” regarding the significance of the Patriarchal invocation in this week’s texts…it is clear that such an invocation is effective and so we can assume we are being encouraged to imitate our “fathers” Moses and Elijah when we ourselves pray for others.

Psalm 142 reminds us that our informal prayers are very often an expression of personal confusion, grief, or distress:
“I pour out my complaint before Him; I declare my trouble before Him.”
Psalm 142:3
In our dialogue with God during hitbodedus we are not ashamed to pour out our hearts when we desperately need His help ourselves. But we ought to be ashamed if we do this so often or in such great detail, that we forget the greater needs of our friends, our community, our People, or our World. Our lives of dedicated prayer are lives of service and so our prayer is a matter of worship first and foremost. Any zechus we might “accrue” in doing this ourselves is, we hope, applied to those for whose needs our prayers are regularly or especially offered.

We do not pray to improve ourselves, though that can happen as a result of our praying . Our prayer is not some kind of therapeutic or ethical exercise for our own benefit. As we are reminded in Parshah Ki Sissa:
“the incense which you make shall not be for your own use….”
Exodus 30:37
Our prayer is related to the sacrifice of prayer in the Temple and as such it is always a community event even when we are in solitude. As we read in Psalm 141:
“Let my prayer be set forth before you like incense; and the lifting up of my hands like the evening sacrifice.”
Psalm 141:2
Our prayer is the way we remind God of His love for us, and the way we remember His love for the Patriarchs and their descendants, and it is the way in which we extend that love to the community ourselves.

Our prayer is a kind of “creation” in which we are potentially God’s partners as conduits. This is perhaps the message hidden in the mystery of zechus Avos: The Patriarchal promises are instances of God’s Love bursting forth as a response to the love of three archetypal individuals- and the fruit of that love is an entire Nation of descendants. The prayers of a Miskarev can be the occasion of God’s Love bursting forth as a response to the love of each individual contemplative- and the fruit or zechus which results is a shower of gifts for all Israel.

This is obviously what Moses is doing on Horeb and actually, if we look a little closer we can see that it is also what Elijah is doing on Carmel as well. Elijah makes his invocation of the Patriarchs to beg God to show His hand and to “support” His faithful prophet personally…but in the very next verse we see Elijah’s ultimate motive for the plea, and it is is very much for the sake of the people:

“... that this people may know that you are the Lord God,
and that you have turned their heart back again.”
(I Kings 18:37)

How can we emulate Moses and Elijah here?

Our petitionary prayers should invoke the Love and Mercy of our Long-Suffering God.

When we don the tallis in prayer we are covering our own inadequacies in the Mercy of God. Before we begin our liturgy, we ask God not to consider our failings and lack of intrinsic merit but to see two things: Our own intention to serve Him to the best of our ability and His own Mercy (Rachamim) and Love (Chesed) in responding favourably to our attempts to pray well. In our liturgy, there is an intimate connection between the Mercy of God and the invocation of zechus Avos. By “reminding” God of His Love for the Patriarchs, we awaken his Mercy.

Parshas Ki Sissa is the parshah in which we read of the revelation of the Divine Attributes. When God’s Glory passes by the entrance to Moses’ cave, we are told that the God of the Patriarchs -whom Moses had recently invoked- is:
“....merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.....
Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin....”
(Exodus 34:6)
This close connection between the invocation of the Patriarchs and our begging for God’s Mercy is seen also in the very first paragraph of the Amidah. We address Him as:

“the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”,

and then proceed to “remind” Him that He is a God who

“bestows acts of loving-kindness and creates all,
Who remembers the loving-kindness of the Patriarchs.”

It is a close connection which is also clearly made in one of the introductory prayers of Minchah l’Shabbos where the words:

“Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, our ancestors, May You keep this forever so that it forms the thoughts in Your People’s heart, and directs their heart towards You”

- are immediately followed by-

“He is compassionate, He forgives iniquity and does not destroy. Repeatedly He suppresses His full anger. For You , my Lord, are good and forgiving, abundantly kind to all who call on you.”

The same emphasis on God’s Compassion is seen in the prayer “L’Olam yehei” where its own special invocation of the Patriarchs is preceded by the statement:

“ It is not through our righteous deeds that we lay down our supplications before you, but through Your abounding mercies.”

In other words, when we beg the Mercy of our long suffering God in the merits of the Fathers (zechus Avos) - we do so by reminding God of His Covenant with the Fathers (bris Avos) because this makes the focus not us, not our ancestors, but God’s Love. When we do this- we ourselves create a new link in the chain which unites us to those who went before us and which also unites us  to our own descendants in its cycle of merit. A cycle which has less to do with our own attainment or character than to the Mercy of our God.

God “remembers the kindness of the Fathers” (v’zocher chasdei avos) and thus “creates all” (koneh hakol). Everything that follows an “act of loving prayer in the tradition of our fathers” is - in the very deepest sense - His doing and not ours. In remembering His gifts to them, God grants us those gifts ourselves. In remembering the Patriarchs, God grants us their inheritance: Chesed, Yirah, and Emes.

And the truth of the matter is that- however it “works”- when we invoke the zechus Avos of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we awaken the Divine Compassion.

The merit of the Patriarchs, the merits of their descendants, and our own merits are not really theirs or ours at all. They are the Goodness whose “back” Moses saw in the cleft in the rock.

N R Davies
Feb 10 2011