Backgrounder: Brief Portraits of the Ushpizin

by Barbara Weill


Abraham

The Patriarch and founder of monotheism, who gave birth to the Jewish nation, as well as to the Arab peoples. The primary historic source for his life is found in the book of Genesis (11:26-25:11).

A son of the idol maker Terach, Abraham was born in the city of Ur in the Chaldean peninsula. In accordance with Divine decree, he left his country and travelled to the land of Canaan, where he arrived at age 75.

Childless with his wife Sarah, he took as a concubine his servant Hagar at age 86, and had from her a son, Yishmael. Thirteen years later, G-d revealed himself to Abraham and renewed His covenant with him. G-d then commanded him to circumcize himself and promised him that Sarah would at last bear him a child. Thus, Abraham's son and spiritual heir, Isaac, was born.

Abraham died at the age of 175 and was buried in the Cave of the Machpela in Hebron, which - together with its surrounding field - he had purchased years before at full value for his family as a burial place (Genesis, 23:3-18).

Abraham's Dominant Qualities:

- His appointment: It is he who was chosen by G-d to found the Jewish people.

- His unshakeable faith (see the Midrash) that expresses itself most notably in the following events:
* During his childhood, he did not hesitate to smash the idols that constituted his father's livelihood;
* he undertook a journey of more than 4,000 kilometers to arrive in Canaan;
* he performed the daunting task of self-circumcision;
* finally and most dramatically, he was tested again in his acquiescence to the Divine will and accepted the task of offering up his son and spiritual heir as a sacrifice to G-d.

- His love of justice and of peace:
During the war that raged in Canaan (Genesis ch.14), he managed to reconcile the kings of Salem (Jerusalem) and of Sodom. Subsequently, he interceded on behalf of the evil inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah before G-d, whose he did not wish to be perish and managed to save his kinsman, Lot, from the destruction. Later, he did not quarrel with Lot and allowed him preference in choosing territory.

- His goodness, his extreme consciousness of hospitality: It is said that his tent was open on all four sides to welcome travellers from any direction.

Isaac

Son of Abraham and of Sarah, the second of the Patriarchs and the first Jew circumcised on the eighth day after birth, Isaac was a young man when G-d tested his father Abraham with the forbidding task of bringing him as a burnt offering. Isaac consented to be bound to the pyre, but at the last moment was saved by an intervening angel who substituted a ram in his place (Genesis 22:1-19).

Isaac took Rebecca--daughter of Bathuel who himself was a cousin of Abraham--as a wife, and they had twin sons, Jacob and Esau. In his old age, having become blind, he bestowed upon Jacob the blessing destined for the firstborn, Esau. Isaac died at the age of 180 in Hebron, and was buried there in the Cave of Machpela with his parents.

Isaac's Dominant Qualities:

- Heroism: He accepted with a full heart being bound to the pyre at the event of his imminent sacrifice.

- Conjugal love: He is the only personality of the Tanach (Pentateuch) of whom it is said that he loved his wife. (Genesis, 24:67)

- Attachment to Eretz Israel:
Of the three Patriarchs, he is the only one to have lived out his entire life in Eretz Israel without crossing its borders. He lived in perfect harmony with the land that he cultivated: "Isaac sowed in the land and reaped that very year a hundredfold, so much the Lord favored him." (Genesis 26:12)

Jacob

The third and last of the Patriarchs. The Torah recounts that he is the son of Isaac and Rebecca, and the younger twin of Esau. Following an altercation with his elder brother concerning the birthright and the blessing his mother instructed him to receive from their father by masquerading as the elder son, Jacob fled to Haran. On the way, G-d revealed himself to him and promised to his descendants the land of Canaan ("the dream of the ladder," Genesis 28:12).

In Haran, he married Lea and Rachel, daughters of his maternal uncle. Together with their two handmaids, Bilha and Zilpa, Lea and Rachel bore Isaac one daughter (Dina) and twelve sons who were to found the twelve tribes. On the path that would return them to Canaan, Isaac enters into a struggle with an angel near the stream of Jabok. It is here that he received the blessing and his new name, "Israel" (Genesis 32:25).

In his later years, during the famine in Canaan, he went down to Egypt with his sons and their descendants (70 people in all) (Genesis 46:26- 27). They settled in the land of Goshen, and it is there that they became a great nation. Jacob died in Egypt at the age of 147, and his remains were subsequently transported to Israel by the Hebrews to be interred in the Cave of Machpela with his ancestors.

Jacob's Dominant Qualities:

- Loyalty to the faith of his fathers:
He successfully resisted the influences of his brother Esau and of his uncle Laban. He resisted their idolatrous ways and for this received the blessing of Isaac.

- A love of peace:
He repeatedly tried to avoid conflicts with his brother and uncle and to live peacably with them. Similarly, he endeavored to have order and harmony prevail in his own home.

- He is the founding father of the Jewish nation: In fathering twelve sons who in turn founded the twelve tribes of Israel, he transformed the line of Abraham into a full nation.

Joseph

The eleventh son of Jacob, the favored child and the first son of Rachel (Genesis 30:23-4). His life is described in the book of Genesis (chap.37 to 50).

His brothers, jealous of him, sell him into slavery to the Egyptians. In Egypt, he is thrown in prison for having refused the advances of the wife of his master, Potiphar, but is released after successfully interpreting the several dreams of Pharaoh. Appointed head magistrate to the king, he saves the land from the lengthy famine that follows.

After accidentally discovering their brother's identity in Egypt, Joseph's brothers join him in Egypt along with their father Jacob.

According to the Torah, the Hebrews of the Exodus carried Joseph's remains to Eretz Israel to bury them there. He is the only of Jacob's sons not to have given his name to a tribe, although two of the twelve tribes bear the names of his own sons, Ephraim and Menashe.

Joseph's Dominant Qualities:

- Prophetic vision that found expression in the dreams he interpreted in the dreams he had himself.

- His political savvy and organizational ability that allowed him to impose legislation upon the Egyptians to enable them to prosper as a nation.

- His keen sense of justice (he is called "Joseph the Righteous"): He demonstrated his virtue in refusing the advances of Potiphar's wife, and great judiciousness in pardonning his brothers who had sold him into slavery as a young man.
Ultimately, he saved his entire family from the famine that had been ravaging Eretz Israel, and established them in the prosperous Egypt of his exile, trials and success.

Moses

Born in Egypt to Yocheved and Amram, both of the tribe of Levi, Moses' two distinguished siblings were Aaron and Miriam. When Pharaoh decreed all male Jewish children were to be killed (because of his magicians' prophecies), Moses' wise mother put him in a cradle that she placed in the Nile, and it was in this way that Pharaoh's daughter came to fish him out of the river and adopt him into the royal family and court of Ancient Egypt.

When Moses rediscovered his people subject to the oppressive slavery prevailing in the land, he sought to mitigate the brutal treatment inflicted upon them by their Egyptian captors. At one point, he slew an Egyptian overseer and so had to flee the land.

Eventually, he settled in Midian, where he encountered the great personality of Jethro--and his daughter, Tzipporah, whom he married. It is there that G-d revealed himself to him and commanded him to return to Pharaoh to convince him to release the Hebrew slaves.

The book of Exodus tells of the plagues, Moses taking the People of Israel across the parted Red Sea and went up to Receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. It was under his leadership that the People lived in the Sinai Desert and Tabernacle in the--the precursor and model for both subsequent two Temples in Jerusalem--was constructed in the wilderness. Through his profound soul the law of G-d was revealed to the Hebrews who become "Jewish" at Mount Sinai.

Moses died at the age of 120 without having entered his beloved and most longed for land of Israel, and his exact burial site is unknown.

Moses' Dominant Qualities:

- He is the consummate prophet: "There has never arisen in Israel since, a prophet like Moses whom the Lord knew face to face." (Deuteronomy 34:10)

- Humility: "Now this man, Moses, was of the utmost humility, more humble than any man who ever walked the earth" (Numbers 12:3).

- His capacity as leader: He understood his people, defended them, intervened on their behalf--even before G-d himself--and yet did not hesitate to impose his own authority with impunity when it became necessary.

Aaron

One of the central characters in the unfolding of the Exodus from Egypt (beginning of the Book of Exodus) and in the dramatic events of the generation that wandered the desert. He was the high priest ("Cohen gadol") and the founder of the dynasty of priests ("cohanim") in Israel.

Born in Egypt to Yocheved and Amram, both descended from the tribe of Levi, he was the older brother of Moses and Miriam. He conspired with Moses to deliver the Hebrews from their Egyptian bondage and to lead them through the desert.

When Moses was atop Mount Sinai receiving the holy tablets of the law, Aaron weakened before the people and played for time in the hope Moses would soon descend the mountain, agreeing to their demands to construct the Golden Calf, and going so far as to allow that the altar be placed before him.

Aaron and his sons had been elected by G-d to serve as the nation's priests, and after the construction of the Tabernacle, they donned the priestly garments to inaugurate the holy service.

Aaron died at the age of 123, also without having merited entry in the land of Israel.

Aaron's Dominant Qualities:

- His charisma and his superb leadership abilities:
He was the mouthpiece of Moses, who only expressed himself with great difficulty due to a speech impediment incurred in childhood. He was well-schooled in evaluating the immense power of the masses, and it is for this reason that he agreed to build the Golden Calf much against his better judgement.

- His saintly character: Aaron represents the ultimate power of the priestly class. He alone was able to penetrate into the Holy of Holies.

David

David is regarded as the greatest king of Israel (1037 B.C.E.-967 B.C.E.). He had exibited tremendous bravery since his early years, when he slew the Philistine giant, Goliath, in single combat.

At age 25, David became an officer in Saul's army, and rapidly distinguished himself in the war against the Philistine nation. Yet later on, he was forced to flee the raging jealousy of the one he had so faithfully served in war, King Saul himself. It was not until Saul's death that David returned to Hebron and was anointed King of Judah. Seven years later, all of Israel's tribes swore allegiance to him.

In the eighth year of his reign, David conquered Jerusalem and proclaimed it his capital. He succeeded in defeating the armies of Philistine, Edom, Amon and Moab, and through these victories, was able to substantially extend the borders of his kingdom and to sign a treaty with Tyre and Sidon.

After having waged these military campaigns, he dedicated himself to the internal affairs of state, to the more administrative and commercial aspects of rulership. David also laid the foundations for the construction of the Temple that would be built in the days of Solomon, his son and successor. David's history can be found in the books of Samuel and in the first Book of Kings.

David's Dominant Qualities:

- Courage, cunning and military genius.

- A passionate nature and a powerful creative energy.

- Musical and poetic gifts: The Psalms are attributed to him.

- David is perceived above all as the father of the Jewish Royal House in Israel and Judah until the destruction of the First Temple. Reference to the leadership of the Nation is always in terms of the "House of David".
His greatness is such that tradition teaches that in the "End of Days," the Messiah will be a descendant of the House of David.




Acknowledgement:

Translation - Hannah Salm


 

 

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08 Jun 2005 / 1 Sivan 5765 0