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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Our God, or God of Our Forefathers?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on October 14, 2021)
Topics: Conversion, God, Faith, Religiosity & Prayer, Halakha & Modernity, Lekh Lekha, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Moadim/Holidays, Sefer Breishit, Shabbat, Torah

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section of ancient amidah text in faded ink in hebrew on parchent or scroll

This is an image of 7b from University of Manchester University of Manchester Library Hebrew MS 24, Amidat musaf le-Rosh ha-Shanah, or Amidah prayer for the additional service of New Year (Province of Henan, China., 1701 – 1900).

The Amidah prayer opens with a blessing about the forefathers. It begins like this: “Blessed are you God, Our God, God of our forefathers,” and it then continues to name those forefathers explicitly: “God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak, God of Yaakov.” In its conclusion, however, it only references Avraham: “Blessed are you God, Protector of Avraham.” Why is Avraham singled out from all the rest?

The answer is rooted in the function that that first blessing plays in the Amidah. Think about it: Here we are, standing up to pray, standing up to directly speak to God. What allows us to do that? How do we have the chutzpah to do such a thing? Said in a different way: What is the framework in which this conversation is taking place? How do we know God? Right at the outset, we must frame how we experience and understand God, since it is that very relationship that makes our prayer to God meaningful.

The opening blessing says: This relationship is a received and inherited one. It is an understanding of God that has been passed down and experienced for over 3,000 years, going all the way back to the forefathers Avraham, Yitchak, and Yaakov. It is a relationship that has continued to persevere, deepen, grow and evolve over the centuries—through our time in Egypt and the Wilderness, during the Temple periods, and amid the Exile—and which is one that we can now call our own. God is “our God” because God is the “God of our forefathers.”

Taken this way, the framing of the relationship is anchoring. It gives it depth and richness; it provides us with structure and a sense of belonging. We must ask, however: Where is our own personal experience of God, our own personal relationship? 

The answer can be found in the blessing’s conclusion: “Blessed are you God, Shield of Avraham.”

Unlike Yitzchak and Yaakov, Avraham had no tradition, no inherited relationship with God. Avraham broke away from his father’s house and charted his own path to follow a voice of God that only he could hear. His relationship with God was dynamic, with highs and lows, arguments and obedience, seeking and finding. After all, a personal relationship is not always stable and comforting. It can be passionate and full of vicissitudes. It can be a roller-coaster of emotions. 

Avraham’s life was suffused with God. Rambam writes that the way to ideally fulfill the mitzvah to love God can be learned from Avraham, whom the verse calls “Avraham, the one who loves me” (Isa. 41:8). Avraham, Rambam writes, is like a lovesick man, a person so enraptured with the woman whom he loves, that he is endlessly talking about her and singing her praises. You cannot get him to stop! This is Avraham. Wherever he went: “He built an altar and cried out in the name of God.” Everyone he meets, every person he has a conversation with—he is talking about God. God, God, and more God! 

One who converts to Judaism is called a “Ben Avraham” or a “Bat Avraham.” Jewish converts, like Avraham, have not inherited their newly-found relationship to God. On their own, they have sought it out; on their own, they have heard God’s voice, and it has propelled them forward. 

Such a relationship is personal, not communal. It is not one that a person inherits; it is one that a person seeks and yearns for, nurtures and cultivates. 

The opening blessing of the Amidah says to us: This is the God of your forefathers and foremothers, of all those fathers and mothers and sons and daughters who came before you. You are part of a rich tradition. If you choose, you can stop right there and live a deep and meaningful religious life! But you can also choose not to stop there; you can strive to have a personal relationship with God as well. We know of God through Avraham. But we can seek God as Avraham did, as well. Avraham has shown us that each one of us can hear the voice of God. Each of us can feel the tug, the yearning to experience God, struggle with God, and find God on our own. 

Blessed are You, Protector of Avraham.

Shabbat Shalom.