AVRAHAM’S SHIELD / YOUR SHIELD
The first blessing in the Amidah is called Avot. Every word is a gem; concentration here is a must, three times a day, each day of your life. G-d of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov. The G-d Who is great, mighty and awesome, supreme G-d, Who bestows beneficent kindness and creates everything, Who remembers the kindness of our fathers, and brings a redeemer to their children’s children for his Name’s sake, with love. King, Helper, Savior, and Shield. Blessed are You G-d , Shield of Abraham.
Two questions always bother me here. Why is everything in present tenseקונה הכל … עוזר ומושיע ומגן – מביא גואלcreates everything , helper, savior and shield… G-d brings a redeemer instead of ויביא גואל….will bring a redeemer? Creates instead of created? And why the shield of Abraham? Why not “shield of Yitzhak” or Yaakov? The Talmud (Pesachim 117b) says והיה ברכה” – בך חותמים ואין חותמין בכולן” – G-d blessed Avraham that the first blessing of the Amidah will be sealed מגן אברהם , Shield of Avraham . But what did Avraham do that was so special that he deserved being mentioned at the close of the first blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei more than Yitzhak and Yaakov?
When I found the answer, it changed the experience of prayer and shed a new light on religion. Allow me to share the answer with you.
This is it. A fundamental tenet of Jewish belief is that G-d knows the tests going on in your life right now. He is there, ready and wanting to save you, aid you and guide you. G-d is bringing a redeemer right now in your life, for your life’s problems. He is helping right now, he is saving right now. We say “Blessed are You“ all day, not “Blessed is He”, because we are talking directly to Him, all day. This is what Judaism is about. Faith in G-d that He is there with us, now, in our present life’s battles, helping us reach our goals. What would happen to your life if you would live with that mindset? What a different day! What a different life! What a different Jew. The funny thing is that you can choose to live your life this way, constantly seeing and feeling G-d’s guidance in every step you take. You just have to know the right meaning in your prayers, three times a day. You just have to pray with the awareness that He is, indeed, a constant, guiding companion. Judaism is so beautiful.
Who, of all the Forefathers, had to fight the most to achieve awareness, in order to have this type of life? Avraham. Of all the Forefathers, Avraham was the only one whose life was all about proving to the world that G-d exists, forever pervading the present, and also both eternal and immortal. Even before birth, Avraham was marked for death because of his belief in the One G-d. ( Nimrod, the most powerful king in the world at that time, was warned by his astrologers that a baby was being born, one who would challenge and refute the pagan beliefs governing the kingdom.. In frenzied fear, Nimrod killed about 70,000 baby boys. Avraham’s mother, Amtelah Bat Karnevoh, whose husband, Terach, was Nimrod’s top general, was feeling birth pangs, so she went into a cave. She gave birth to Avraham there, and the light on Avraham’s face illumined the cave. She looked at her baby, Avraham, and said to him, אוי לי שילדתיך בזמן הזה , Woe is to me that I have given birth to you at such a time, when Nimrod killed 70,000 baby boys because of you . I fear that Nimrod will find you and kill you. It is better that I leave you here and you die in this cave, than that I take you out into the world, and you will be slaughtered by Nimrod. Baby Avraham, alone in the cave, had no one to nurse him, and he cried. And Hashem heard his voice, there in the cave, and G-d sent him the Angel Gavriel to sustain him. Avraham’s right finger miraculously started to exude milk, and he sucked it. This continued until Avraham was ten days old. He then began to walk the land…) G-d shielded Avraham in the fire of Ur Kasdim, when he left his father’s house, when Sarah was taken in Egypt, during the famine, at the war against the kings, when Sarah was taken by Avimelech, at Akeidat Yitzchak… G-d will shield us, as well, if we believe in Him with complete faith.
This is how we turn to G-d in the present tense, praying with faith that He can provide salvation for us, meeting our every need. He is, right now, saving your life, bringing about your ישועה , your salvation. Just believe. Three times a day. He knows your struggles, your battles. And right now, He is working things out for you, without your even knowing how. With one condition. As long as you are real about this belief thing. Not like Haran.
Avraham’s brother, Haran, was not sure if Avraham was right about his belief in G-d. As Avraham was thrown into the fire in Ur Kasdim, Nimrod asked Haran if he agreed with his brother’s anti-pagan beliefs. Haran was not sure if he should follow his brother Avraham into the fire for the sake of Judaism. He looked into the fire and saw that G-d came into the fire to save Avraham. After witnessing Avraham’s success in his debate with Nimrod – crowned by his brother’s miraculous salvation from the fire – he decided to answer in the affirmative, and was promptly tossed into the fire. But G-d did not make a miracle for Haran.(Midrash Tehillim 108) Why not?
The answer is one that can shake every Jew to the core. G-d was willing to make a miracle for Avraham, alone, and not for Haran, because the kind of belief that brings miracles is an unwavering, unconditional belief – not one that is pulled out of the pocket as a document to assure passage through tough situations. Avraham had unshakable belief in G-d and was willing to die for it. Haran was not willing to die for the belief, but relied on his hope that the miracle performed for his brother would be performed for him, also. It was not a belief that he arrived at on his own. It was the same kind of belief that many “believers” have, a passive kind of just following the flock, without giving the subject much thought. Judaism is about realizing – through the Book of Torah and the Book of Nature – that there is a Creator Who wants us to serve Him and perform His Mitzvot. Judaism is about being an Ivri – one from the “other side.” The whole world may disagree with us and stand on the other side of the ideological “river”; yet, the authentic Jew, like our great Patriarch Avraham, will stand alone with his belief, through fire and water, even if it looks as if no one else is supporting his side of the debate. Haran was not willing to be that “lonely man” of faith, not willing to stand up for his belief. Therefore, G-d was not willing to stand up for him.
So, we start the Amidah with Avot, connecting to their beliefs, connecting to their lives. Avraham Avinu’s way of believing is the way we believe, and the way we believe makes such a difference. It can be a matter of salvation or frustration. Life or death. When taking three steps back before Amidah, ask “Do I believe that G-d is listening right now, ready to help me? If I would only ask him with my whole heart! He is willing to grant my request, He just wants me to believe that he is there. Do I really believe?”
A unique feature of Lashon haKodesh (the Hebrew language) is that the deepest essence of each word is found in the first usage of that word in the Torah.
Let us take the words ‘gadol’(large) and ‘katan’ (small) as examples. The first encounter we have with these words in the Torah is in reference to the sun as being “haMaor haGadol” while the moon is described as “haMaor haKatan” (Bereishit 1:16). The words ‘big’ and ‘small’ do not refer to size alone. In addition, gadol means mashpia (one that influences) as well. The sun is the source of light while the moon is a recipient of this light and affected by it. It is this ability to be a giver/an “influencer”, as opposed to being katan, a taker or a receiver, which categorizes the sun as ‘gadol’ and the moon as ‘katan’. The classification, ‘Gadol haDor’, is not bestowed upon every generation’s outstanding Torah scholars only on account of the prodigious amount of Torah one knows or based upon the number of one’s followers. Rather the qualification of a Gadol is one’s being a mashpia, a spiritual source of wisdom, guidance, advice, and new hope. Ironically, a person can be gadol, old in years, yet remain a katan by lacking what it takes to be mashpia upon others – one’s community, one’s place of learning or working, or even upon one’s family.
Having explored a paradigm of the depth of Lashon haKodesh, let us examine a word that describes a most ubiquitous topic in Jewish discussions: Chinuch. Commonly interpreted as education or childrearing, this word also encompasses a deeper, more precise translation. The first time we encounter the word, ‘chinuch’, in the Torah is in our parasha, regarding the relationship between Avraham, the patriarch of our nation, and his servant, Eliezer: “וירק את חניכיו”, “and he hurried his apprentice (Eliezer) who he trained ” (Bereishit 14:14). Rashi explains that the word, chinuch, “is training a person or item to be able to achieve its maximum performance in the future.” Avraham had trained Eliezer to do mitzvoth and chessed in a way that he will be self-motivated and knowledgeable exactly how to behave. Interestingly, R’ Meir Shapiro from Lublin draws from these words of Rashi the following inference: If the training does not achieve a long-term effect, then it is not proper chinuch/training.
Chinuch does not mean to raise children. It means to raise adults. This sounds like common sense but many parents somehow live with this misconception. Instead of bringing up, nurturing and cultivating a family, they try to maintain one. The efforts that go into that maintenance undermine the latent, deeply-rooted necessity to train our family members for future conduct.
The ripple effect of this miscomprehension is that parents perceive their offspring as children sitting in the back seat of a car: in whichever direction we choose to go, they are to follow. R’ Yisrael Salanter writes, “… as the carpenter steps on scraps of wood, and the glassblower on broken shards of glass, the mentor (or parent) similarly steps on the souls of those he mentors…” Naturally, a craftsman looks down on the unfinished, raw material of his trade. Likewise, a parent may relate to his/her child in the childrearing mode, and not as a separate independent being.
However, the Torah refers to chinuch as training. Training to do mitzvoth. Training to live a Torah life. The concept of child-rearing conveys dealing with children in the most efficient manner possible for the duration that the child remains in the parental household, with minimum amount of involvement on the part of the parent. Training, unlike childrearing, connotes the act of constant guidance, modeling and mentoring.
This one difference has so many ramifications. Childrearing methods or institutionalized education can have some effect upon a child even when s/he is not engaged fully. Just throw him or her in the back seat and buckle up. Training, on the other hand, can never be accomplished when there is reluctance on the part of the recipient. Although a child manipulated by his/her parent through reward for good behavior or punishment for bad conduct can show successful short-term improvement, it works rarely in achieving positive, long-term results. .
Besides creating an environment of love and warmth, proper chinuch/training can only be done where there is perceived trust – trust that the child feels important in the eyes of the parent (and mentor). Sincere listening to, validating of and empathizing with a child’s feelings may be the most powerful tool to achieve this. One can just imagine how much damage in the training relationship can be caused by not listening with full attention to a child when s/he would like to share something with the parent. A parent can, at least, say, “Now is not a good time but I would like to hear you out in a short while.” Listening, preferably ten minutes a day, strengthens the relationship of trust, resulting in a much better chance that the child will want to be trained by someone he now trusts.
The prerequisite to this first step in the actual training process is a parent’s self-improvement. Often, my rabbi would be confronted by parents who came for counseling about dealing with adolescents. Always, he would advise, at the outset, that the parents try strengthening themselves in that particular issue or area of life or Judaism with which they discern their offspring struggling.
Although parents, sometimes, must direct the child with commands, usually borne out of sheer frustration, the ideal approach is to enable and guide a child to think for themselves and to decide correctly what is his/her best course of action in any situation. I have heard many parents ask, “Am I a good parent?” A more constructive question to pose, one that will cause better results is, “How can I train my child to do a certain mitzvah or behave in accordance with certain values?” Of course, there will be areas where the child will pick up your intent passively. However, in harder areas for the child, the parent needs to ask him/herself not how to get the child to perform the desired act but how should I train the child to want to do the act.