Friday, February 22, 2008

a stool of only one leg vs. a stool of three: nationhood and the Avos

Chazal (Brachos 32) record Moshe Rabeinu’s argument against Hashem threat to rebuild the Jewish nation from him alone (32:10): if a stool of three legs, meaning a nation built on the legacy of the three Avos, cannot not stand in a moment of G-d’s wrath, kal v’chomer a stool of one leg, a nation built on the legacy only of Moshe, will not stand.

The kal v’chomer invoked by Moshe seems to have an obvious flaw. The new stool will not have one leg, but four – Moshe plus the legacy of the Avos, as he is obviously their descendent!

R’ Elchanan explains (in “aggados al derech hapshat” at the end of Koveitz He’Oros) that we invoke the zechus of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov not merely because we are physically descendent from these great people. There are other tzadikim who lived before the Avos from whom we are also descendent, e.g. Noach and Shem, but we do not invoke their zechuyos. What makes the Avos unique is not their status as our physical forefathers, but their status as our national forefathers. Just like we use the term “father of the nation” for George Washington even though he is not anyone’s physical father, so too, the Avos are the forefathers of the Jewish people as a distinct national entity. Only based on that status do we invoke their zechus.

While the lineage to the Avos would remain even if a nation were built from Moshe’s progeny alone, the Avos’ unique status as “fathers of the nation” would be lost. The new nation would be rooted in Moshe as its forefather, and would hence be a stool of only one leg.

I think this vort is interesting because we have discussed in the past in other contexts at what point geirus into a Jewish nation becomes a meaningful concept. R' Elchanan's sees the change of Avraham's name to "av hamon goyim" as reflecting a change in his status from just a family unit among the clans decendent from Shem into an indepedent nation. Yet, R' Elchanan elsewhere places tremendous emphasis on Torah as the sole binding force holding together the Jewish nation. I wonder how he squares this idea with Avraham being an independent nation even pre-mattan Torah. Of course, one could point to the Midrashim that opine that Avraham observed the Torah... just thinking out loud.


  1. Anonymous2:31 PM

    Think temporally.
    Avos--3 generations
    Moshe--1 generation
    It takes not only the people and a place to form a nation (in our case, Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael), but time for structures to become permanent and habits to become ingrained. The Patriarchs had three generations in which to do that work; Moshe would have had only one generation.

  2. Anonymous7:40 PM

    I don't know why, but this reminds me of the din of ger she nisgayer kekoton she nolad dami -- and the related din that acc. to many sources this halakha did NOT apply to the dor ha Midbar -- even though they underwent "geirus" at Mattan Torah.

    I have heard two explanations, probably comlpementary:

    1) the reason that ger she nisgayer kekoton she nolad dami is because the ger is leaving his prior nation and joining the nation of Israel. At mattan Torah, however, the nation was already there and formed -- no change of nationhood. This is how R. Naftoli Tropp explained it.

    2) the geirus at mattan Torah was a geirus of the klal -- a collective geirus of klal yisroel, not of 2 million individuals. Accordingly, they retained their prior familial status. This is a pshat by R. YB Soloveichik.

    So there really is no contradiction. Klal yisroel underwent a collective transformation as a nation into the Jewish nation -- with all its attendant kedushah. The national part started with Avraham Avinu; the holiness component was added at Mattan Torah.

    (In the Nefesh ha Rav, R. Schachter quote a shailo which was once asked of the Rabbanut -- can one be megayer, accept the 613 mitzvos, but still retain membership in the prior nation -- e.g be a Britisher or Dutchman, but just one that has the obligation to keep 613 mitzvos instead of 7? The answer was: No. The possuk in Rus says "Ameich Ami, v' Elokayich Elokai." To be megayer, one has to accept a new nationhood as well as a new set of mitzvos.)