So many leaders to choose from: Who to emulate?

Blessed are you, Lord, Shield of Avraham ~ Daily Amidah

As Jewish communities the world over journey through the book of Bereishit, we travel together with the founding fathers and mothers of our people’s storied history: Avraham and Sara, Yitzchak and Rivka, Ya’akov together with Rachel, Leah and their children who form the 12 tribes of Israel. These personalities beget their own narratives, dedicated passages in the text, and personal accounts of triumph and tragedy.

We may all have our personal pick of one standout character from these narratives we relate to and are inspired by most, but seeking a consensus on one personality in particular is just as important as we are introduced to these individuals again in our weekly readings of the book of Bereishit. At the very least, we may consider a different title for this column: “So many leaders to choose from: Who to emulate first?”

In the opening verse of Lech-Lecha, God promises Avraham that if he goes to the land of Israel, he will receive several blessings: “You will be a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, it will be for a blessing.” (Bereishit 12:1). In his commentary, Rashi explains the blessing with two approaches. The first is based on the reality that when one travels, there are three aspects in one’s life that tend to be reduced: fertility, wealth and reputation. God promises Avraham that even after he moves, he would still be blessed with children (You will be a great nation), wealth (I will bless you), reputation (I will make your name great), and the ability to give blessings to others.

In a second look, Rashi points out that in the first blessing of the daily Amida prayer, we make reference to God being the “God of Avraham” (You will be a great nation), the “God of Yitzchak” (I will bless you), and the “God of Ya’akov” (I will make your name great). One would have thought that in the closing of the first blessing we would have made reference to all three of the forefathers and conclude with, Blessed are you, Lord, Shield of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov! This, explains Rashi is refuted in God’s final promise to Avraham, that he will be for a blessing, hence the closing blessing only makes reference to Avraham and not the others.

To invoke the merit of our ancestors, we focus on Avraham, in some ways to the exclusion of the others. It is certainly the case that when we pray, we invoke the merit of all our ancestors, speaking to the greatness of their lives and the legacy they left in their wake, that their accomplishments stand as a blessing for all of eternity! Yet, that we conclude the first Amida blessing with a sole reference to Avraham places him in a league of his own.

What this may mean for us is that a piece of Avraham must live on in each of us (even if he is not our personal #1 pick in Bereishit!), and not solely because he was the pioneer. Many others after him pioneered, innovated, and left an indelible mark in our people’s history (e.g. the Zohar has an expression in reference to Ya’akov Avinu that he was bechir sheba’avot– he was the choice and select of the forefathers).

What sets Avraham apart for all eternity was his unique trait of chesed- loving-kindness. The noted teaching that the world stands on Torah, avoda– religious worship, and gemilut chasadim– loving-kindness, has been understood to represent a correspondence to the three forefathers (see Maharal commentary to Avot 1:2). Avraham corresponds to loving-kindness; we read of him inviting in strangers from the road, praying for the inhabitants of the cities of Sodom, and put his life in danger to save Lot. Yitzchak corresponds to worship, in that he gave himself to be brought as a sacrifice at the Akeida, and Ya’akov to Torah, as it is written, “And Ya’akov was a mild man, dwelling in tents” (Bereishit 25:27).

If we had to pick one leadership trait for our generation of that every person studying the narratives of Bereishit may truly excel in, it would be chesed. In the realm of religious worship, we are lacking the sacrifices and the Temple in Jerusalem, not to mention our struggle with focused and elevated prayer that our grandparents and ancestors excelled in. In the realm of Torah, more people are studying Torah today than ever, but we do not have access to the Torah scholars and giants of previous generations.

We conclude the first blessing of the Amida prayer with Avraham; with the trait of chesed. This trait is certainly one that our generation excels in! The volume and quality of chesed in our generation through the countless institutions, funds, and community initiatives is unparalleled, and one in which we all can certainly play a role in.

Indeed, Bereishit is filled with many leaders to choose from. For starters, let’s attempt to reflect back into our world the chesed of Avraham.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Effie Kleinberg serves as Educational Director at Forum for Jewish Leadership, an organization focused on developing the next generation of strong future Jewish leaders around the globe. Rabbi Kleinberg holds a doctorate in educational technology from Yeshiva University and worked as an educator in North America for close to 10 years. He currently resides with his family in Ra’anana, Israel.
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