Birth of a Nation

The memory of our ancestors can inspire us all and infuse us with hope: our nation itself was born in exile.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

The first time that G-d ever addressed Abram (decades before he became Abraham), He began by telling him “Go for yourself from your country and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to a Land that I will show you; and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great; and you shall be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2).

Some four centuries later, when G-d addressed Moshe for the first time and gave him the charge to challenge and defeat Egypt and to lead the Children of Israel out to freedom, He introduced Himself with the words, “I am the G-d of your father, G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). G-d subsequently instructed Moshe to refer to Him with this same appellation – “the G-d of their fathers, G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob” – when addressing the Children of Israel (3:15 and 4:5).

And a millennium after that, when the Men of the Great Assembly formulated the Amidah Prayer (Megillah 17b; Rambam, Laws of Prayer 1:4; Mishnah Berurah 106:4), they used the same formula to begin our daily prayer: “Blessed are You Hashem, our G-d and G-d of our fathers, G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob…”.

The Talmud (Pesachim 117b) and the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 11:2) cite Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (Reish Lakish) who connected G-d’s blessing to Abram – “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great” – with the phrase “G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob”:

“‘I will make of you a great nation’ – about this we say ‘G-d of Abraham’; ‘and I will bless you’ – about this we say ‘G-d of Isaac; ‘and I will make your name great’ – about this we say ‘G-d of Jacob’”.

The Talmud makes it clear that “only three [Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – Rashi] are called ‘fathers’ [of Israel – Rashi] and only four [Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah – Rashi] are called ‘mothers’” (Berachot 16b).

The Rashb”a (Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, Spain, 1235–1310) in his commentary here cites Rabbi Hai Gaon (Hai bar Sherira Gaon, Babylon, 939-1038), who explains that only these were important enough to be called the fathers of all Israel and the mothers of all Israel.

Several Talmudic and Midrashic sources note that Abraham begat not only Isaac but also Ishmael and the sons of Keturah, who were cast out from the Israelite family. Then Isaac begat not only Jacob but also Esau, who was cast out from the Israelite family. But Jacob begat twelve sons, none of whom was rejected, all of whom were worthy (Shabbat 146a, Pesachim 56a, Sifrei Va’etchanan 31, Sifrei Ha’azinu 312, Bereishit Rabbah 68:11, Vayikra Rabbah 36:5, and several other places).

The Hebrew family had to go through three generations of refinement, of sifting, before they could become the complete and perfect nation.

The Torah portion of Vayetze in Genesis records the birth of the nation of Israel – eleven of the twelve sons of Jacob, who became the leaders of the Tribes of Israel (Genesis 29:32-30:24). These eleven were all born in Paddan-Aram, while Jacob was an indentured servant, working for his uncle and father-in-law Laban.

Only Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin, was born in Israel, on the road to Efrat (Genesis 35:16-18).

Now would we not have expected the Jewish nation’s founders, the fathers of the Twelve Tribes, all to have been born in the Land of Israel, their homeland? Why were they born in exile, to a father who was not independent?

When G-d introduced Himself to Moshe as “G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob”, when He told Moshe thus to describe Him to the Children of Israel enslaved in Egypt, He sent Moshe, first and foremost, to infuse a spirit of hope and optimism into the nation.

Moshe’s message resounded: Yes, today you are oppressed and enslaved, imprisoned in exile, as were your parents and grandparents before you. But your great-grandparents, the founders of the Twelve Tribes, those who came down to Egypt with their father Jacob, were born in exile, held there against their will. And G-d redeemed your great-great-grandfather Jacob – Israel, for whom you, the Children of Israel, are named – from his exile in Paddan-Aram and brought him back home to Canaan.

Of our fathers, Isaac and Jacob were both born in Canaan. Abram was born in far-distant Ur of the Chaldees (the present-day Kurdish region of Iraq), but he only became Abraham and was circumcised in Canaan – meaning that spiritually, he was “born” in Canaan (following the principle that “a convert who converts is like a new-born baby” – Yevamot 22a, Bechorot 47a, et. al.).

Had the twelve tribal founders also been born in Canaan, they could not have served to inspire the Jews born in Egyptian exile and slavery to believe that G-d could redeem them from exile. But since the very founders of the Twelve Tribes were born in exile, spent their earliest youth in exile, and then came home to Canaan, they could inspire the Jews born in Egypt with the hope of redemption. And similarly they were the inspiration for the Jews in Babylonian exile, that one day their exile, too, would end.

And so too they can be an inspiration for Jews scattered throughout the world for the last 2,000 years in our current exile.

On G-d’s promise and blessing to Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great”, Rashi comments: “Because the journey [which G-d commanded Abram to make from his homeland] causes three things to be reduced – it reduces child-bearing, it reduces material wealth, and it reduces reputation”.

That is to say, the rigours of the journey made it less likely that Sarai would give birth; inevitably some property gets lost in any move, apart from the cost of travel; and Abram would arrive in a distant location where he was unknown.

And so, according to the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235), G-d’s three promises to Abram correspond to these three potential reductions: “‘I will make of you a great nation’ – even though your wife is barren I will make her fruitful, and in this Land she will give birth; ‘and I will bless you’ – I will increase your good with wealth and with property and with honour…; ‘and I will make your name great’ – your name will be famous among the nations because of your great blessing, and the honesty of your deeds, and your success”.

The Midrash expounds that “G-d gave an omen to Abraham, that everything that happened to him would happen to his descendants… He chose Abraham from among all his father’s house…and He chose his descendants from among the seventy nations… To Abraham He said ‘Go for yourself from your country…’, and to his descendants He said ‘I will bring you up from the poverty of Egypt to the Land of the Canaanite…to a Land flowing with milk and honey’” (Exodus 3:17)” (Tanhuma, Lech Lecha 9); and then the Midrash proceeds to cite several more examples of how events in Abraham’s life were omens for what would later happen to the Jewish nation as a whole.

The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270), in his commentary to Genesis 12:6, extrapolates from this a more general principle, that “everything that happened to the fathers was an omen for the sons”.

The Ramban’s words surely inspired countless generations of Jews, scattered throughout a hundred countries of exile, born far from their ancestral homeland and seeing no possibility of every coming home to the Land of Israel. If “everything that happened to the fathers was an omen for the sons” – then everything that happened to the founders of the Twelve Tribes was likewise an omen for the descendants of those Tribes.

They were born in exile – but they came home. They were born and raised for their earliest years in a hostile and oppressive environment – but they escaped from the oppressor and came back to their own country.

True, their return was temporary, and 33 years later they would again descend into exile, this time to Egypt, and this time the exile would culminate in horrific persecution and slavery, torture and mass murder.

But after 210 years of Egyptian exile their descendants would be redeemed from Egypt with magnificent miracles.

The memory of our ancestors can inspire us all and infuse us with hope: the nation itself was born in exile. For sure, the individual Jew born in exile will yet one day come home.