BASED on the headline of this column, the reader might think it is about Christianity. It is not. Rather, in many contexts, Judaism speaks of “the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob.”
Are there three gods?
Other Jewish texts and contexts describe G-d as “Great, Powerful, and Awesome.”
Is G-d threefold?
No, and no.
Rather, G-d is mentioned three times because the G-d of Abraham is not the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Isaac is not the G-d of Jacob. Which means: Not three gods, but Abraham, Isaac and Jacob each apprehended G-d differently.
Apprehended him, for example, as Great, Powerful or Awesome.
In other words, G-d is one; perceptions of G-d are not. Even the holiest pietist and Torah scholar can only apprehend G-d partially, no matter how close to G-d he is. Of necessity, perceptions of G-d must be incomplete; they must vary.
Which does not derogate from the absolute oneness of G-d.
Even within a fixed spiritual system, such as Jewish law (Halachah), people will establish their own relationship with G-d and their own apprehension of Him.
Which leaves us wondering: What, exactly, was the individual relationship of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob with G-d?
Commentators such as Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv, 1816-1892) find a natural lead-in to this question in this week’s Torah portion. Jacob blesses his two grandsons, born to his son Joseph:
“May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the boys [Joseph’s two sons]; and may they be called by my name and by the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they proliferate abundantly like fish in the land” (Gen. 48:16).
My name: Jacob. My fathers’ names: Abraham and Isaac. This comprises the listing in the Silent Prayer (Shemoneh Esrei): “the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob,” except, the Netziv notes, Jacob’s order is different. In Jacob’s blessing to his grandsons, he mentions his name first.
SAYS the Netziv: Each of the Patriarchs experienced Divine Providence differently. Primarily, Abraham exper- ienced G-d as protection in times of threat to physical safety, such as war. Isaac experienced G-d primarily as a source of livelihood. Jacob experienced G-d primarily as a source of peace.
When Jacob blessed his grandsons that they be called by the names of all three Patriarchs, he meant that they experience G-d in all the ways the Patriarchs did: defense, goods and peace.
Continues the Netziv (here and in earlier comments on Gen. 12:7 and 5:2):
This triad — “G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, G-d of of Jacob” — corresponds to another well known triad, set down in Ethics of the Fathers: The world is founded on three things, “Torah, service of G-d and acts of kindness.”
Torah study: It is a defense against enemies, a defense against wars of all kinds: outer and inner. Both the war waged with weapons, and the war waged within one’s soul to do the right thing. The battlefield war and the moral war. Torah study is a shield in both arenas. This was the G-d of Abraham.
Service: Devotion to G-d generally and prayer specifically yield parnasah, livelihood. Food grows from “the field” (Gen. 5:2) and Isaac prayed in “the field” (24:63): the reward for prayer is in this world (the reward for other mitzvot is reserved for the next world). This was the G-d of Isaac.
Kindness: Acts of kindness create peace. It is obvious; it needs no explanation. This was the G-d of Jacob — who blessed his grandsons with his own name first.
“It is known that the seed of Joseph,” writes the Netziv, “excelled at peaceful relations and acts of kindness more than at Torah and service. That’s why Jacob mentioned his name first, and only afterward the names of Abraham and Isaac.”
The listing of the other two Patriarchs indicate that Jacob’s grandsons also possessed the virtues of Torah study and service; but kindness predominated.
AN alternative explication of the triad, “G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, G-d of of Jacob”: It corresponds to the descriptions of G-d as Great, Powerful and Awesome. In fact, in the quintessential Jewish prayer (Shemoneh Esrei), both triads are mentioned in close proximity. The prayer reads:
“Blessed are You, G-d . . . G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac and G-d of Jacob . . . Great, Powerful and Awesome . . . ”
We may say: Abraham’s G-d is Great. Isaac’s G-d is Powerful. Jacob’s G-d is Awesome.
Greatness is the capacity to hear someone else, to respond to another’s cry. The Torah describes Moses as “great” when he heard the cry of the oppressors of his people and slayed the Egyptian taskmaster. Abraham’s entire life may be described as “great,”given the long list of people and incidents in which he heard the cry of others. Abraham was vulnerable to the claims of Lot for land, to the capture of Lot in war, and to the respective claims of his wives Sarah and Hagar. Abraham plead before G-d for the citizens of Sodom and Gommora; he tried to find a way to justify their rescue from G-d’s punishment. Abraham was vulnerable to the spiritual strivings of everyone around him, to whom he taught the oneness of G-d. Abraham was vulnerable to G-d’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac.
The G-d of Abraham is vulnerable, accessible to the human being.
Power is the capacity to rise above, to seek Eternity, to escape the bonds of this earthy vale. Isaac’s entire life after he was bound (and almost slaughtered) on Mount Moriah was a long period of virtual silence. Isaac is the Silent Patriarch, as Rabbi Emanuel Feldman pointed out. Isaac virtually never speaks. His prayer is so strong that it acts as a gale force, so to speak, knocking Rebeccah off her camel when she first lays eyes on Isaac, her intended. Isaac is the only one of the three Patriarchs and Four Matriarchs who never steps foot outside the the holy land of Israel. He is a holy man of prayer and of silence — of great power. He lives in the next world while still in this one, so to speak.
The G-d of Isaac is all powerful, invulnerable, inaccessible, beyond the human being.
Awesomeness is a dual quality, each part manifest in a different stage of Jacob’s life.
The first part of Jacob’s life is marked by his vulnerability to G-d’s plea to take up His mission to found the Jewish family. Jacob uses his birthright to raise 13 children, and unlike both Abraham and Isaac, all of Jacob’s children stay within the fold. Vulnerable to G-d’s mission, Jacob puts up with the conniving and unpleasantness of his father-in-law Laban; Jacob takes a chance and returns to Canaan, despite the fact that he fled the country because his brother Esau hated and threatened him.
That is the first part of Jacob’s life: active, participating, vulnerable to G-d’s call to raise up the Jewish family.
The second part of Jacob’s life is the opposite. When his son Joseph is taken from him and Jacob’s thinks that Joseph has been devoured by a wild beast, Jacob slips into passivity, inaccessibility. His remaining sons cannot rouse him from his mourning, and can hardly reason with him when their food stores run out due to the famine in the land, and it becomes necessary to take the Benjamin — the sole surviving full brother of Joseph and the sole surviving son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel — down to Canaan. Once in Canaan, Jacob tells Pharaoh that his years have been fewer and poorer than those of his father and grandfather. Jacob is removed, inaccessible, invulnerable.
The G-d of Jacob is Awesome, both accessible and inaccessible, both vulnerable and invulnerable.
If this seems unexplainable logically, think of it this way: One G-d, creator of the universe, will never be fully apprehended by the human being. He will always be mysterious, at least to an extent, never given fully to logical explanation. He will be both accessible and inaccessible.
In other words, G-d is one. Perceptions of G-d are not and cannot be.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News