In our parsha this week God warns Israel of the results of their disobedience, but then He offers these words:
“But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors—their unfaithfulness and their hostility toward me, which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham… I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am Adonai.”
God’s statement here is one of many passages in the Torah that gave rise to an idea in our tradition that we can benefit from the merit of our ancestors. This is called Zechut Avot, Merits of the Fathers (or Ancestors). Another passage along these lines comes from Exodus 20 where it says:
You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, Adonai your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Exodus 34 contains the passage that we recite during the High Holy Days:
יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙
Adonai, Adonai, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands of generations, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
Lamentations 7 states the opposite of inheriting merit, “Our ancestors sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment.”
Zechut Avot is elucidated in our liturgy. As we come before Hashem in the Amidah, we remind Him of our ancestors in order to gain favor and catch His ear. We say in the first blessing:
Blessed are You, Adonai our God and God of our fathers, God of Avraham, God of Yitzak, and God of Yaakov… [the God] who remembers the lovingkindness of the fathers…”
On Rosh Hashanah we call upon God to remember Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son:
"Remember us, Adonai our God, the covenant, the loving-kindness and the oath which you swore to Avraham our father on Mount Moriah. May the binding with which Avraham our father bound his son Yitzchak on the altar appear before you, how he overcame his compassion in order to do your will with a perfect heart."
Not to leave women out, we also gain merit for the Matriarchs. In the Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah quotes Song of Songs and says:
The voice of my beloved, behold he comes, leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills, [where] ‘leaping upon the mountains’ means... the merit of the patriarchs, and ‘skipping upon the hills’ means... merit of the matriarchs.
The concept of gaining merit or punishment from our ancestors assaults our modern sensibilities. We believe that everyone stands on their own merit. No one today says “She should be accepted to medical school because her mother was a great person”. But historically people were indeed concerned about one’s family. This was especially true in matchmaking. Yes, the son might be an engineer or a doctor but questions were asked about the family he came from. It was a factor in deciding whether to make a match or not.
So how is this possible? How can we benefit from our ancestors?
I think that it has to do with covenant. Notice our verse from this week’s parsha, God will remember the covenant with Avraham, Yitzak, and Yaakov and forgive us. As Jews we are not just separate individuals, we are bound to one another in our covenant with God and with our people throughout time. It is through this covenantal bond that the merit of our forefathers and foremothers can be granted to us by God.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Controlled Palestine called Israel a “metaphysical social organism”. We are not only a physical family but through the Abrahamic, Mosaic,and Davidic covenants, a spiritual family. And like a physical family inherits physical traits of appearance, talents, and predispositions, we can inherit benefit from the good deeds of our ancestors.
But notice our verse again. There is a part we must play. God says if we confess our sin and vow to leave our unfaithfulness behind, then He will remember that covenant. When we repent, God looks upon the merits of our ancestors and the covenant that He has with them and takes pity on us.
We inherit zechut, but it is in potential only. We must actualize it. A rabbinical commentary on Bereshit says “Our holy forefathers gave us as an inheritance good character traits. We need to realize them and bring them from potential to real force in order to become complete.”
This is how I think we should see Yeshua’s atoning death. Yeshua’s sacrifice is bundled up in the covenant with Israel. It is because of the covenantal bond that we share with him that we are able to gain the merit of his obedience to the Father and of his sacrificial death. Hashem listens to his plea as he hangs on the cross to forgive us for we know not what we are doing. And He imputes to us Yeshua’s righteousness. But of course, we need to seek teshuvah, repentance, and turn away from our sins.
Furthermore, the word for merit, zechut, comes from the word “zach” which means “pure”. For example, last week’s parsha spoke about Shemen zayit zach, pure olive oil. Yeshua imparts his zach, his purity to us by washing our sin-stained garments white as snow.
But if this is true, what does that mean for the nations of the world who do not share this covenantal bond that Israel has with God? How do they receive the merit of Avraham, Yitzak, Yaakov, Moshe, King David and Yeshua? Ah! It is because they are grafted into the covenant! Rav Shaul says “you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree”. They partake of the nourishment of Israel’s merit! When a gentile turns to God through Messiah Yeshua and repents, God grafts him or her into the covenant and then through that covenantal bond imputes the merit of Yeshua to them. The “root” of the olive tree is Hashem’s covenant with Israel and the “sap” of the olive tree is the zechut of those who have gone before us, including Messiah Yeshua, that flows and feeds both the natural and wild branches!
But our tradition also asserts that zechut can go in the other direction. The children can bring merit to the ancestors. When a child recites the Mourner’s Kaddish for 11 months after a parent’s death and then annually at their yahrzeit, they impart merit. It is as if they are standing in the heavenly court beseeching Hashem to be merciful to their parent, for if a child is reciting this, surely the parent did a good job raising them.
This is also expressed in the practice of studying in honor of a deceased person. In doing so we are asking God to give some of the godliness that we generate through study, our zechut, to them. Again, saying that if we are studying in their honor, then they must have been a meritorious person. Rabbi Akiva Eiger, a major leader in Eastern Europe during the early 1800s, left his wish that his students and friends would learn one chapter of Misnah every day throughout the first year after his death and then every year on his yahrzeit “for the zechut of my neshama.”
One may also study on behalf of someone who is sick. Asking God to have mercy upon them by applying our merits on their behalf.
Through our faithfulness and commitment to Hashem’s covenant, we can bring honor and merit to our ancestors. We can bring blessing and honor to Yeshua, the one who died for us.
One rabbi wrote that a righteous person who only improved himself is like a man who sold an item for ten times its value. But a righteous person who invests in others, encourages them in their zechuyot, is like a man who sold many items for a smaller profit margin. In the end his total profit will be many, many times larger. This sounds very similar to Yeshua’s mashal about the different investors. The least of these was the one who simply buried it and had no gain, while the others multiplied theirs.
The Talmud (Brachot 64a) says that the righteous have no rest even in Olam HaBa because their actions in this world keep producing fruit.
May we activate the zechut of Avraham, Yitzak, and Yaakov by acting like them, building up our own zechuyot.
May we receive the merit of Yeshua through the covenant and through our teshuvah.
May we pass on our zechuyot to our descendants, both physical and spiritual.
And may we return zechuyot to our ancestors and to Messiah Yeshua, the Pure One, who lived a life of zach, even unto the point of death on a stake like a criminal.
Then none of us will have true rest in Olam HaBa!