In the beginning of Parashat BeChukotai, the Torah states, “VeZacharti Et Briti Ya’akov, VeAf Et Briti Yitzchak, VeAf Et Briti Avraham Ezkor, VeHaAretz Ezkor,” “I will remember My covenant with Ya’akov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham will I remember, and I will remember the land” (VaYikra 26: 42), which we recite in the Akeidah portion of Tefilah every morning. The Gemara (Shabbat 55a) notes two opinions on why we value our Avot—Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov—and if they still benefit our nation. Shmuel says that the value of the Avot has already died out and no longer gives us protection. However, Rav Yochanan says that the merit of the Avot continues to benefit us with grace from Heaven. Tosafot comment that the aformentioned Pasuk proves that the Jews will have freedom due to Hashem remembering the promise He made with their forefathers. How can Shmuel say that the value of the Avot died out? Furthermore, if the merit of the Avot did in fact die out, then why do we still mention them every day during Tefilah?
Tosafot answer this by differentiating between the value of the Avot and the Brit with the Avot. The Brit, sworn by Hashem to the Avot, is never to be broken, and it is this Brit that we say in our Tefilah.
Alternatively, it can be that there really is no disagreement between Shmuel and Rav Yochanan. Rather, Shmuel is referring to the Brit’s power to protect Am Yisrael from evil, while Rav Yochanan is referring to its power to protect the righteous. The Devar Avraham explains this opinion by saying that people are allowed to take pride in the greatness of their ancestors only if their behavior matches their pride. Those who do Aveirot and don’t follow in the ways of their ancestors may not take pride in their greatness, for their actions degrade the source of their pride.
Rav Moshe Feinstein presents an additional answer as to how we can rely on the merit of the Avot, even according to Shmuel. In the eyes of Hashem, the Avot were very special people who passed on this covenant for many generations after them. The Torah states (Shemot 34:7), “Notzeir Chesed LaAlafim Nosei Avon VaFesha VeChata’ah VeNakeih Lo Yenakeh Pokeid Avon Avot Al Banim VeAl Bnei Banim Al Shileishim VeAl Ribei’im,” “Keeper of kindness even for the thousands of generation, forgiver of crime and sin, but will not necessarily clear the guilty peoples’ names from the current children to their children and their children, all the way until their third and fourth generations.” The Torah here promises to reward every righteous person for two thousand generations. We can benefit from this promise since we are still within that number of generations from our righteous forefathers. While in order to have this merit one must also be righteous, even though not every individual is, the nation as a whole is still considered to be righteous. Therefore, we are still able to benefit from the merit of the Avot even according to Shmuel, because we can evoke the merit of our righteous forefathers as a nation.
However, we may then ask ourselves why we are fortunate enough to benefit from our righteous Avot? Also, why are we benefiting from Mitzvot that the Avot did many generations ago when we are so far removed from them by time?
Rav Dessler, in the beginning of his Michtav MeiEliyahu, explains this concept and the obligation that it places on us.
Imagine that two thieves are brought before a judge to be tried for their crimes. The judge, trying not to be cruel, would like to find a way to change them into good people without having them face harsh punishments. He therefore decides to find out whatever he can about each of the criminals. The judge finds out that the first thief comes from a respectable family and is usually surrounded by law abiding citizens. However, this one time, he was negatively influenced by a bad friend. The judge decides that instead of sending the man to jail, he will release him to his family, hoping that under their influence and guidance, he will not violate the law again. For this man, returning him to his family will have a better effect on him than having him sit in jail for an extended period. The judge then finds out that the second thief, on the other hand, has no good influences in his life. Upon return to his own society, he will most likely violate another law and appear once again before the judge, having not learned his lesson. In this case, the judge must send him to jail, so that he will not commit any further crimes, and he will at least learn from his actions in the way that best suits his needs.
In both of these cases, justice was served and the goal of changing the criminals’ behavior was achieved. In terms of the first thief, this goal was able to be accomplished through Midat HaRachamim, the attribute of mercy, while the second thief had to feel the attribute of Midat HaDin, strict justice.
Our forefathers left us this rich spiritual legacy of just people. Rav Chaim of Volozhin writes that millions of simple Jews throughout the generations have given their lives to Torah to model after the great accomplishments of Avraham in giving his life to Hashem in Ur Kasdim. His greatness in spirituality has been a great influence for the entire nation in their nature and actions. This is true regarding the accomplishments of the other Avot as well. We have a naturally elevated spiritual character due to the efforts of our forefathers.
When we identify with this strong legacy, we allow the noble character traits that our forefathers established in our nation to flow through us. When we work on strengthening ourselves by sacrificing our worldly desires for Hashem, we connect with the Avot and show that we are able to repent from any sins that were the resulted from our human nature. Hashem can then decide whether it is worth giving us another chance or not. Benefiting from the merit of our Avot means connecting to them by acting with the same religious zeal as they did.