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What is the kabbalistic significance of the three Patriarchs?

by Rabbi Shais Taub

  

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Before we start speaking directly about the patriarchs, a short introduction to basic Kabbalistic concepts is in order. According to the kabbalistic model of the universe, G-d relates to this world through ten different aspects called sefirot. Within the ten sefirot are the basic building blocks for G-d’s entire involvement with creation.

These ten different ways of relating to his creation are further broken down into three columns: right, left and center which constitute outwardness, inwardness and the blending of the two together. 

The three chief emotional sefirot – chesed (kindness), gevurah (restraint), tiferet (compassion) – belong to the right, left and center columns respectively, and the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as we shall see, embodied these three qualities as well.

On the right side, we have chesed, kindness and effusiveness, which is typified by generosity and an outgoing nature. Abraham personified these qualities with his concern and love for every individual.

If chesed is like water which flows downward to bring life-giving sustenance to the lowest places, then gevurah is like fire which constantly strives upward
As the Torah tells us, Abraham built an inn at an oasis in the desert so he could bestow hospitality upon wayfarers. His chief aim in life was to teach the world about G-d by connecting with others through loving kindness.

In contract, his son Isaac embodied the sefirah (singular form of “sefirot”) of gevurah, restraint, which is introspective rather than outgoing. The attribute of gevurah connotes self-discipline and a strong desire to attain lofty goals. If chesed is like water which flows downward to bring life-giving sustenance to the lowest places, then gevurah is like fire which constantly strives upward.

Isaac was a picture of meticulous self-perfection and the desire to elevate himself and the world to ideal standards, as opposed to Abraham who could love the world for what it was and only desired to draw down G-dliness into it. 

When Isaac willingly allowed himself to be offered as a sacrifice (which, of course, G-d prevented at the last moment) he exhibited his essential nature of self-discipline and the desire to be elevated to the loftiest heights.

Jacob is tiferet, compassion, which is a balance between right and left.  The nature of the right side, kindness, is to bestow beneficence to all indiscriminately. The left side, restraint, on the other hand, dictates that one be exacting with oneself and others and may even judge others unworthy of kindness.

Compassion is the middle path between right and left which moves one to deal kindly with others, but it is not indiscriminate—it only evokes one’s mercy to those who truly need such kindness (as opposed to chesed which gives to all, and gevurah which only gives to those who deserve the Divine beneficence).


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RELATED CATEGORIES

History » Patriarchs, 12 Tribes

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Abraham
First Jew, and first of our three Patriarchs. Born into a pagan society in Mesepotamia in 1812 BCE, he discovered monethieism on his own. He was told by G-d to journey to the Land of Canaan where he and his wife Sarah would give birth to the Jewish People.
Kabbalistic
(adj.) Pertaining to Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism.
Sarah
First Jewess, first of the four Jewish Matriarchs, wife of Abraham--the first Jew. Lived in Mesopotamia, and then Canaan, in the 19th century BCE.
Jacob
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Isaac
Second of the three Jewish Patriarchs, son of Abraham and Sarah. Lived in Canaan (Israel); b. 1712 BCE, d. 1532 BCE.
Esau
Rogue son of Patriarch Isaac and Matriarch Rebecca. Elder twin of Patriarch Jacob.
Rachel
Third of the four Jewish matriarchs. Daughter of Laban, favorite wife of Patriarch Jacob, and mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Died while giving birth to Benjamin in 1557 BCE.
Ishmael
Son of the Patriarch Abraham and half-brother of Patriarch Isaac. Ancestor of many Arab tribes.
Avot
"Ethics of our Fathers." A tractate of the Mishna (original rendition of the Oral Law) which discusses Jewish ethics and piety.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.