Did the merits of the Patriarchs expire?
In Parshat Ki Tisa, after the sin of the golden calf God wanted to destroy B’nai Yisrael and start a new nation with Moshe being the father. Moshe argued that it would not be a good idea to destroy the entire nation and start again. He reminded God of the forefathers in Shmot 32:13: “Remember Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your Self and said to them ‘I will make your descendents as numerous as the stars of heaven, and all this land of which I have spoken, I will give to your descendents and they will inherit it forever.’”
In sentence 14 we see that God listened to Moshe: “And God reconsidered the intent of doing evil that He said He would do to His people.”
Why did God reconsider after Moshe mentioned Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov?
According to Midrash Tanchuma, the fact that Avraham passed the Ten Nisyonot (tests) should make up for the fact that B’nai Yisrael transgressed the Ten Commandments immediately after they were given.
If their punishment was to be by fire, the fact that Avraham was thrown into the fiery furnace for the sanctification of God’s name should compensate for their actions.
If their punishment was to be by sword, then the merit of Yitzchak who stuck out his neck in Akedat Yitzvak (the binding of Isaac) should save them.
If they deserve exile, the merit of Yaakov who was sent away by his parents to Charan should redeem them.
Midrash Tanchuma continues: If the promise to Avraham which You swore by Your own name was to make them a great nation then how are You cutting them off after only seven generations- Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Levi, Kehat, Aram, Moshe?
At that point, God forgave them.
Do we still have Zechut Avot, merit of the Patriarchs today? If the Jewish nation sins will God still pardon us based on the merits of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov the way that He did after the sin of the golden calf?
The Talmud, Shabbat 55a teaches that Zechut Avot expired. According to Rav it has not existed since the days of Hoshea (Hoshea 2:12), Shmuel’s opinion is that it has not existed since the days of Chazael (Kings II, 13:22), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that it has not existed since the days of Eliyahu (Kings I, 18:36) while Rabbi Yochanan states that it has not existed since the days of Chizkiyahu (Yishayahu 9:6) as it says: “For the increase of sovereignty, and for endless peace, upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom, to establish it and with justice and righteousness, from now and forever- the zeal of the Lord of Hosts performs this.”
According to Rashi, from Chizkiyahu’s time and onward the salvation of the Jewish people will come through “the zeal of the Lord of Hosts”, not through the merit of the Patriarchs.
The merit of the Patriarchs saved us in the past but now it is our turn to merit God’s mercy by following in the footsteps of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, spreading the word of God throughout the Land of Israel and following a path of righteousness and justice.