Remember for us the covenant of the patriarchs, as You said, “And I
will remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with
Yitzchok, and also my covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with
Avraham I will remember, and the Land will I remember.” (Leviticus
26:42) (From the selichos liturgy)
One of the central elements of the Yomim Noraim (High Holidays) is the
concept of z’chus avos, which states that we, as children of our holy
forefathers, can tap into our ancestor’s great spiritual merit and achieve
a degree of atonement that would otherwise be impossible. Despite our own
inadequacies, we are able stand before Hashem and beg forgiveness due to
the special relationship that He enjoyed with our progenitors.
The obvious question is how is this possible? How can it be that Hashem,
the ultimate arbiter of truth and justice, would look past our actual
deeds and grant us special reprieve simply because of our lineage? Is it
logical to suggest that despite the fact that we may be as guilty of sin
(at least on a relative level) as the gentile nations around us, we can be
exempted from our poor behavior just because of a special bond which took
place some four thousand years ago? Where is the evenhandedness in such
Before we attempt an answer to this question, let us first endeavor to
reach a clear understanding about the roles and relationship between
Hashem’s attributes of din and rachamim (strict justice and mercy,
Typically, we perceive these two attributes as mutually independent
elements of divine justice. Hashem either chooses to judge a person
strictly or He applies compassionate mercy, and softens the severity of
the true judgment against sinners.
However, this understanding is wholly inaccurate. Rashi, commenting on the
first verse in the Torah, questions why it is that throughout the entire
first chapter of Genesis only the name “Elokim” – the divine name used to
express strict justice – is used when referencing the Creator. Yet, at the
beginning of the following chapter (2:4ff), the combined term of “Hashem
Elokim” is utilized (a term indicating that not only had rachamim become
incorporated into Hashem’s mode of judgment, but had even bypassed din as
the primary means of ruling). Rashi’s response provides us with a new
insight into our discussion.
In the beginning it was His intention to create (the world) with the
Divine Standard of Justice, but he perceived that the world would not
endure, so He preceded it with the Divine Standard of Mercy, allying it
with the Divine Standard of Justice. (Rashi to Bereishis 1:1)
Since the earliest stages of creation, Hashem deemed it necessary for din
and rachamim to be melded together to form one complete entity, working
together harmoniously in response to Man’s misdeeds.
But how does this work? How can din and rachamim be used in conjunction
with one another to achieve a desired result?
Rav Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu, Volume 1, p.8ff) explains this idea
through the use of the following example. Suppose that there are two young
men who each rob a bank of the same amount of money. One was raised in a
crime riddled community without proper parenting and guidance. The other
comes from an upstanding home; now, he has fallen in with the wrong crowd,
and has turned to a life of crime.
The judge, who happened to be a roommate with the second thief’s father
during law school, rules that the first thief must spend two years in
prison. His friend’s son, however, is required to pay a small fine and
contribute 200 hours of communal service.
At first glance, this inconsistency in judgment would appear to be highly
inappropriate. After all, they committed the same crime. If anything,
logic would dictate that the criminal from the depressed neighborhood
should be treated with more clemency, while the one who was raised in an
upscale setting should be reprimanded more severely. Certainly, the judge
would want to avoid any possible accusations of impropriety by letting his
friend’s son off easy.
Yet, that is exactly the same type of “impropriety” which we ask Hashem
for every time that we ask him to spare us in the merit of our forefathers
(as we noted above)!
Rav Dessler explains that the proper objective of justice is not to punish
criminals or sinners for their misdeeds. Rather, the goal must be to
correct the crime or transgression so that they are not repeated in the
In the case of the second criminal, who was raised in a home that valued
proper conduct and respect for the law, this objective can best be
achieved through a more lenient approach. This particular young man
understands deep down what is right. With some additional guidance and a
return to a strong, healthy environment, he can be redirected along the
proper path. Under these circumstances, even “justice” would agree that
leniency offers the best means of turning this young man around. Time in
the penitentiary would only exacerbate the problem.
The first criminal, on the other hand, does not possess a clear sense of
proper social conduct. From his perspective, crime is a way of life, a
means of survival. To allow him immediately back on the street would
almost guarantee future repetition of criminal activity, which could
result in even more dire results. Here, “mercy” would advocate for a
stricter punishment, to suffer more today with the hope of a better
When we ask Hashem to factor in his love for our forefathers as part of
our judgment, we are not looking to simply take advantage of positive past
relationships. Rather, we are asking Him to see the latent potential
within us as children of Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov, and judge us in
that light. In that respect, we are like the robber who comes from a good
home environment but has become entangled with negative influences.
Gentile nations, however, lack that pedigree, and cannot tap into the same
reservoirs of proper conduct.
Let us develop this idea further. In Ruach Chaim, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin
notes the slight change in terminology between Avos 5:4, which refers to
Avraham by the term “avinu” (our father), in contrast to the preceding
mishna, where the title is omitted. He states that the reason for the
distinction is due to the fact that the previous mishna focuses on pure
genealogy, namely the ten generations from Noach to Avraham. In that
respect Avraham was not decidedly more of a paternal figure for our nation
than was Noach, from whom all of humanity originates. What distinguishes
Avraham as our collective father, says R’ Chaim, is the fact that he
successfully completed a series of tests – the focus of the subsequent
mishna – that strengthened and internalized his deep sense of belief. That
belief he bequeathed to future generations, as if through our genetic
code, becoming our progenitor on a much deeper level.
Numerous illustrations bear out this point. Take, for example, the issue
of self-sacrifice. Why is it, asks R’ Chaim, that so many Jews, even the
irreligious, have been willing to sacrifice their own lives for the
sanctification of heaven? The answer: Because of Avraham’s readiness to
choose death in a fiery furnace rather than acquiescing to the
sacrilegious demands of King Nimrod.
We see this again in relation to our historic connection to the Holy Land.
To what can we attribute a Jew’s ever-present longing for his national
homeland, even after nearly two millennia of life in exile? To Avraham,
who hearkened to Hashem’s voice and left his extended family and homeland
for a faraway, unknown destination – to Canaan, i.e. Israel.
Yet another application of this idea is the Jewish penchant for physical
and spiritual endurance. What has allowed Jews to develop tolerance for
even the intolerable, assured that all would eventually work out for the
best? Again Avraham, who, despite the crippling famine that greeted him
upon his arrival in Canaan, never once questioned the divine plan. These
and other spiritual qualities were transmitted directly to the Jewish
people due to the self sacrifice and fundamental faith of Avraham avinu.
By asking Hashem to grant us clemency in the merit of our forefathers, we
are not asking Him to “play favorites”. Rather, we are imploring Him to
look deep within us and see us not only for our past misdeeds, but also
for our future successes. We hope that He chooses to focus on the latent
potential which lies biologically imprinted within each of us and grant us
the judgment which will allow us to convert our great potential into
As we approach Rosh Hashana, let us aspire to give Hashem every
opportunity to see us as true descendants – spiritual as well as physical –
of the avos and thereby achieve the type of favorable judgment that we
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff, M.Ed., is an instructor of Jewish History at Hebrew Theological College (Skokie, Illinois) and serves as associate principal at Yeshiva Shearis Yisroel in Chicago. More information about Rabbi Hoff can be found on his website, www.rabbihoff.com