Hesed, Gevurah, and Emet: Do These Attributes Actually Describe our Forefathers?

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Ben Greenfield


In kabbalistic and Hasidic thought, each of the forefathers is associated with a defining characteristic. Avraham is associated with the attribute of kindness (hesed), Yitzhak with that of strength (gevurah), and Yaakov with truth (emet). For example, Zohar Hadash 33b states:

Each and every one of our Avot knew the Holy Blessed One through his own aspaklariah (looking glass). Avraham knew Him through hesed … Yitzhak knew Him by the level of gevurah … Yaakov knew Him through the level of tiferet … which is called emet, and which unites [the previous two middot], as it is written: “You will give emet to Yaakov” (Micah 7:20).[1]

This threefold association has entered the pantheon of popular English-language Torah knowledge. A simple search finds it referenced at length on websites such as Chabad, Torah In Motion, Aish HaTorah,, Mishpacha Magazine, as well as throughout the Artscroll Humash―all without a citation to any specific source.

But these associations seem false! In the actual biblical narratives, Yaakov is deceptive, Yitzhak is weak, and even Avraham’s kindness begins to collapse after light analysis. How then should we understand this kabbalistic association? This essay argues that the Zohar Hadash understood these three attributes not as virtues which our forefathers mastered but as qualities with which they each wrestled. In fact, the very use of the term hesed―a rather loaded phrase in Avraham’s life―may indicate that the Zohar Hadash intends to highlight not strengths but struggles of our ancestors.

The Discrepancy
Let us begin with Yaakov, whose attribute of “truth” is the most difficult to understand. His very name means trickery (Bereshit 27:36); he seemingly swindles Esav into selling his primogeniture (25:29-34); he deceives his blind father, by thieving Esav’s identity, in an act that Yitzhak himself describes as mirmah,ִ guile (27:35); he offers to work with Lavan for only the rare speckled, spotted, and black sheep, before intentionally manipulating the flock’s procreation to profit himself (30:31-43); he absconds from the Haran clan in the middle of the night, which the Torah describes as “stealing Lavan’s heart … by not telling him that he was fleeing” (31:20). Back in Canaan, he tells Esav to travel ahead, because he will follow close behind and the two brothers will soon meet up again in Seir. Instead, Yaakov takes his family to Sukkot (33:14-17).

Further, Yaakov is himself the victim of immense lies. He wakes up beside not his promised wife, Rachel, but her sister, Leah (29:25). His own children sell his favored son, Yosef, down to Egypt and then invent an elaborate and bloody cover story (37:32-34). Finally, he remains silent as his two children, Shimon and Levi, deceive the city of Shechem into a defenseless massacre, themselves acting with mirmah (34:13). In sum: Yaakov’s blessing and initial wealth are the product of two deceits; his frustration and grief, the product of two more; his silence, the background to the killing of a deceived town.

Yitzhak’s supposed “strength” offers a similarly weak match to the actual Yitzhak we know. The reader witnesses a tragic impotence in Yitzhak’s latter years, when he sits blind and befuddled (27:1): when he is unable to distinguish between hunted game (supposedly his favorite food, 27:4) and a goat meat substitute (27:25); between hairy skin and wooly coats (27:22); between his sons Esav and Yaakov (27:23); when he is powerless to decide the direction of his own legacy and blessing (27:33, 27:37); when the only wife he has ever loved connives against him (27:8-10). These verses paint the Torah’s single most vivid portrait of, well, weakness.

Yitzhak’s earlier life only adds to the portrait. When Avraham passes away and Yitzhak is left in control of the family water wells, competing clans move in and obstruct them. Two new streams that Yitzhak bores are immediately contested. It is a triumph when a single well obtains (Bereshit 26:18-22). Similarly, Yitzhak’s attempts to pass Rivkah off as a sister rather than his wife fail dramatically, as Avimelekh catches the couple sporting; he righteously scolds a silent Yitzhak, and he later sends Yitzhak out of town (26:7-11, 26:16). But we are bound to mention one more moment of debility: Akedat Yitzhak. Constrained on the altar, Yitzhak lays with his neck bare, awaiting the fatal stroke (22:9, 22:10). His most iconic biblical moment is one of perfect passivity.

Even Avraham’s claim to hesed falls apart after some inspection. True, his generous reception of the three angelic strangers offers the reader a showcase moment of clear hesed. But, Avraham’s full story is not at all defined by “kindness” and often runs directly counter to it. How is Avraham the epitome of hesed in raising the blade over his bound son? Where is the hesed in allowing Sarah to torment the lowly maidservant Hagar (Bereshit 16:6) or in exiling Hagar and her young child Yishmael into the blazing desert (Bereshit 21:14)? When Avraham argues on behalf of Sodom, his claims are explicitly rooted in mishpat (justice) and not in empathy, mercy, or kindness (Bereshit 18:23-25). If anything, Avraham’s exploits unite around the theme of gevurah! With courage he leaves his homeland and journeys to a land that God will eventually show him; with brute force and clear valor he raises an army that successfully rescues Lot from captivity; with exceptional willpower he circumcises himself at the age of 99 (Bereshit 17:24). The Avraham we know from the actual Torah exemplifies any number of virtues, but hesed is not particularly high on that list.

Yaakov’s story is one of guile and deception, not emet; Yitzhak’s persona is one of frailty and relative impotence, not gevurah; Avraham’s character shows moments of profound hesed, amongst ample narratives that are simply unrelated to kindness if not directly counter to it. How then to make sense of these kabbalistic attributions?

Two Unsatisfying Strategies
The first strategy is the “selective” one, in which one waves away the various discrepancies and elevates only those few moments when each patriarch’s story actually matches their attribution. This strategy is most commonly applied to Avraham, whose treatment of the three angelic guests is quite easy to “select” as representative of his hesed. The selective strategy can be used with Yaakov as well: Yaakov displays emet in his remarkably frank dialogue with Pharoah (47:9); makes oath-commitments that he presumably fulfills in full (28:20-22); and recounts to Lavan his years of workplace integrity (31:38-41). Even with Yitzhak, a brief spotlight on gevurah can be made. Yitzhak faces open hostility over his wells, yet he manages to outmaneuver the competition and establish “ample space to increase in the land” (26:22). Highlight a few choice narratives, and the trifecta is complete. However, the selective strategy is ultimately weak and unpersuasive. It is difficult to accept that a patriarch epitomizes a particular attribute, when in so many narrative moments, those attributes are betrayed. What honor does it give a biblical character, to declare them the embodiment of a particular trait on the basis of one narrative and then watch as they fail to live up to that trait in other narratives?

(A cousin to the “selective” strategy is the “revisionist” reading, in which challenging verses are reread as innocent. For example, when Yaakov falsely tells his father, “It is I, Esav, your firstborn” [27:19], Rashi plays with the commas, producing the more accurate phrase, “It is I. Also, Esav is your firstborn.” As one might imagine, extending this to every detail of Jacobian dishonesty quickly becomes a rather forced and difficult project.)

The second interpretative strategy is the “counterintuitive” approach, which works best in recasting Yitzhak’s attribute of gevurah. This strategy acknowledges that Yitzhak seems weak but asks us to reconsider our notion of strength. Is there not a strength in self-sacrifice and self-restraint? Is it not the supposedly weak ones who, in their very survival and gritty self-regard, reveal true power? When the Zohar attributes gevurah to Yitzhak, we are meant to pause for a moment, in surprise, before realizing the counterintuitive force of this kabbalistic claim. True strength is an internal capacity, not an external display. Recall ּBen Zoma’s well-known code in Pirkei Avot 4:1: “Who is strong? He who conquers his own desires.” The “counterintuitive” read of the Zohar affords a similar moral message.

But the counterintuitive read fails when applied to Yaakov and Avraham. “Who is truthful? He who has a questionable relationship to the truth” is a mantra thankfully omitted from Pirkei Avot; we would be remiss to impose this “moral” teaching upon our forefather Yaakov. Is there justification for Yaakov’s cunning decisions? Is there a certain hardball realism that even the righteous must engage in? Quite possibly. But let’s call that “wisdom” or “politik” or netzah―the kabbalistic attribute associated with survival, victory, and endurance. Calling deception truth does not broaden our understanding of truth; rather, it violates it. Further, applying the counterintuitive read to Avraham adds little bite. What kind of newfound understanding of hesed would the Zohar point us toward? The mind struggles to capture a meaningful “true hesed”―meant to deepen our commitment and understanding of kindness―when reviewing stories of attempted child sacrifice and successful child banishment. The counterintuitive strategy comes up blank before Avraham and reads as forced, if not downright amoral, before Yaakov.

The straightforward read―Yaakov is in fact truthful―fails the evidence test. The counterintuitive read―truth ought to be redefined in light of Yaakov’s untruth―is equally problematic. What then is the Zohar thinking when it connects Yaakov to truth, Yitzhak to strength, and Avraham to hesed?

Theory #1: Attributes They Confront
The Zohar is not offering us the trait that each forefather masters; rather, it offers us the trait that they each confront. In effect, the Zohar offers a theme word that ties together their respective biblical careers. Understood this way, the Zohar is brilliant. Looking for one single thread that knits together almost all of Yaakov’s diverse stories? Emet: its challenges, its lack, its necessity. Many of his narratives revolve around one character knowing a certain truth, another left in the dark, and the ramifications that emerge. Will Yaakov choose truth? What was gained and lost in each of those choices? Will his uncle, his wives, and his sons be truthful to him? What will emerge when the truth is eventually uncovered? Yaakov is not the epitome of truth, but his stories do consistently revolve around that theme.

Likewise, Yitzhak is by no means the embodiment of strength. But his narratives turn on the realities of strength: its absence, its varieties, and its challenges. We meet Yitzhak as a defenseless infant, the first-ever subject to the cut of circumcision; the Torah then alludes that Yitzhak is bullied by an older brother who toys with him (Bereshit 21:9, cf. Rashi); next, his arms and legs are bound, as he lays under Avraham’s sharp blade and God’s powerful command; he prefers his strong and aggressive son Esav, who is able to brandish weapons and bring home game; he maneuvers (not always gracefully) to maintain his family’s safety amongst dangerous and strong clans; he navigates his own growing power, making strategic treaties and ultimately choosing to distance himself from rivals; he sits impotent at the end of his life, endowed with the titular power to decide his successor yet lacking the de facto ability.

Avraham’s stories likewise orient around hesed: with moments of granting kindness, withholding kindness, overcoming kindness. We know Avraham is capable of immense hesed to strangers (Bereshit 18:1) and of modeling hesed shel emet in his burying of Sarah (23:2, 23:19). But it is this same Avraham who must “conquer his compassion” (cf. Rosh Hashanah Mussaf, Yalkut Shimoni Bereshit 101:7) in order to sacrifice his blameless son, and the same Avraham who, in the face of apparent need, gives up Sarah into the hands of two powerful men (Bereshit 12:11-13; 20:2). Likewise, Avraham clearly holds such overwhelming devotion to family that he drops everything, puts his own life at risk, and rescues Lot (Bereshit 14:14); but it is the same Avraham who is earlier tasked with leaving his father and brothers behind (12:1, 12:4), and later, with exiling his own son (21:14). In each episode, Avraham confronts the call to hesed, sometimes manifesting that trait and at other times withholding himself from it.

Indeed, a simple rereading of the initial Zohar Hadash passage affirms this approach: “Our Avot knew the Holy Blessed One through their own aspaklariah … Avraham knew Him through hesed … Yitzhak knew Him by the level of gevurah … Yaakov knew Him through … emet.” It never states that each forefather mastered, epitomized, or championed these attributes. Rather, it asserts that these virtues were the aspaklariah―the looking glass, or windowpane―through which each forefather came to know God. To say that emet was the lens through which Yaakov experienced the Creator is not to claim that he mastered the attribute of “truth,” but that his sacred life story keeps returning to that theme.

Theory #2: Attributes of Struggle
But a more radical read of the Zohar’s claim is also available: these attributes are those with which each forefather struggled and even failed. By pairing Yaakov with emet, the Zohar calls attention to the fact that Yaakov is rarely truthful; by connecting Yitzhak with gevurah, the Zohar highlights how he almost never displays power. After all, saying that Yaakov experienced God through the lens of emet is to identify God―and not necessarily Yaakov―as a beacon of Truth; it is Yaakov who finds himself in need of that beacon. Perhaps Yaakov understood God through emet precisely because that was the realm in which he was constantly struggling.

In fact, this more critical reading best fits the Zohar’s choice of biblical proof text: “As it says, ‘’titen emet le-Yaakov, You [God] will give truth to Jacob’ (Micah 7:20).” Give truth to him, because he is in need of it! The verse makes no claim that Yaakov possesses emet but instead implies a present lacking. Indeed, the fuller context of that Micah passage makes clear that the prophet speaks of sin and failure, and the wish for eventual change:

Who is a God like you, forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression … He [God] will turn again and have compassion on us, He will subdue our iniquities; You will hurl into the depths of the sea all our sins. You will give emet to Yaakov and hesed to Avraham…. (Mikhah 7:18-20)

The prophet hopes that our present-day iniquities will be subdued and that with it, emet and hesed will one day be manifested in Yaakov and Avraham. Only a forced and out of context read of “titen emet le-Yaakov” would hear in it a call to attribute the virtue of truth to Yaakov. Rather, in the Zohar’s choice to employ this verse, it offers a subtle critique of our ancestors. Turn to Yaakov not to see a victor in the battle for Truth, but one who struggled mightily with that challenge. Indeed, associations rooted in opposites are a running theme in kabbalistic symbolism, where the sefirah of gevurah is commonly associated with the left/weaker hand, and the sefirah of malkhut (monarchy) is commonly associated with women, not men. That the Zohar might go out of its way to connect our patriarchs with an attribute they each lack ought not surprise.

Further, the very use of the Hebrew word “hesed” for Avraham may be part of the Zohar’s critique. It is easy to forget that the biblical term hesed is a homonym, with two egregiously different denotations. We tend to be more familiar with hesed as related to kindness, love, grace, favor, and goodness. Yet that is clearly not the meaning in Vayikra 20:17:

If a man shall take his sister, his father’s daughter, or his mother’s daughter, and see her nakedness, and she see his nakedness: it is a HESED; and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people: he has uncovered his sister’s nakedness; he shall bear his iniquity.

Unsurprisingly, hesed here is rarely translated as kindness or favor. Rather, it appears to mean something like disgrace or shame, with support provided from how hesed is used in Mishlei 14:34 (“righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a hesed to any people”), Mishlei 25:10 (“lest a listener yehasdekha―shame you―and your disgrace never be undone”), and in Aramaic (cf. Rashi ibid. and Onkelos to Bereshit 34:14).[2]

With that in mind, let us now turn to the only time in which Avraham himself employs the term hesed: Bereshit 20:12-13. Avraham had previously told Avimelekh that Sarah was his sister, and now he is forced to explain their relationship:

And Avraham said [to Avimelekh]: “Because I thought: Surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake. And moreover she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and so she became my wife. And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said unto her: ‘This is your HESED which you shall do unto me; at every place where we shall come, say of me: He is my brother.’”

Which hesed does Avraham here employ? The straight read is that Avraham speaks of the favor, or the kindness, that Sarah shall do for him. Yet it is possible to read this as Sarah’s disgrace that she shall do for him, in forfeiting her body into the hands of a powerful stranger. Either way, the appearance of this particular word, in this specific context, is remarkable. Hesed appears both times in instances of sibling/mate confusion. Vayikra 20 is about treating a sister as a spouse; Bereshit 20 is about treating a spouse as a sister.

When the Zohar pins Avraham with “hesed,” it is aware of this moment in Avraham’s career―the only time in which Avraham himself uses the term. The Zohar’s word choice highlights this episode for us and effectively asks us to consider which “hesed” the Zohar has in mind: Avraham of loving-kindness, whom we see at various points in his narrative, or Avraham of a few disgraceful episodes, including the very difficult hesed choice to treat his spouse as a sister. In effect, it is possible to read this phrase in the Zohar Hadash as speaking “tongue in cheek”: sure, Avraham’s story is marked by acts of “hesed,” but not necessarily in the virtuous sense. The very choice of this term by the Zohar Hadash alludes to the possibility that each attribute was not an area of perfect mastery but of substantial struggle, for each of our patriarchs.

The attributes which kabbalistic sources associate with our forefathers (truth, strength, and kindness) are at odds with how the patriarchs are actually portrayed in Torah narrative (often dishonest, almost always in a position of weakness, occasionally quite kind but also marked by an essential callousness). If we assume that this kabbalistic thread celebrates the forefathers as champions of each respective trait, the above discrepancy is a substantial problem. We are left with two somewhat forced and unconvincing strategies for resolving that discrepancy. The “selective” strategy asks the reader to ignore those parts of our patriarchs’ lives which do not match the kabbalistic attribution. The “counterintuitive” strategy asks the reader to put aside their own baseline understandings of truth, strength, and even kindness.

However, we need not assume that this kabbalistic thread sees the forefathers as championing these traits. Nothing in the Zohar Hadash indicates that the forefathers own, master, or are themselves the source of these virtues. Rather, it asserts that each patriarch “knew God through the looking glass” of these virtues. The virtue is located outside them and is central to their experience, but it is not necessarily something that they themselves embody. As such, it is reasonable to understand this kabbalistic thread as stating that the forefathers repeatedly confront their respective attribute: sometimes exhibiting it, sometimes challenged by it, constantly weighing if and how to bring that virtue into the world.

But a fourth, more critical understanding is also possible. Perhaps to “know God through the looking glass” of a virtue means to struggle with that virtue. It is possible that Zohar Hadash’s intention in this passage is to highlight Yaakov’s tendency toward mirmah, guile (Bereshit 27:35; 34:13) and Yitzhak’s frequent positions of impotence. This “struggle” read is bolstered by the Zohar Hadash’s biblical proof text (Micah 7:20), a verse that speaks of Yaakov and Avraham lacking their respective attributes and which appears in a passage about Jewish spiritual failure. A more critical reading is also aided by awareness of how the term hesed actually occurs in Avraham’s narratives. It is never used to describe his grand acts of kindness; it instead occurs when he asks Sarah to give herself to Avimelekh, a context which eerily echoes the much more negative meaning of the term hesed (“disgrace”) in Vayikra 20:17. Ultimately, the discrepancy between these attributes and the patriarch’s biblical portrayal is best resolved by recognizing that the original kabbalistic sources did not claim that these virtues actually describe our forefathers.

Indeed, virtues like Kindness, Strength, and Truth cannot possibly be embodied completely by any mortal being. It is fairly bold of later sources to construe Avraham as the model of kindness, Yitzhak as the champion of strength, or Yaakov as the embodiment of truth, when only God is capable of such uncorrupted virtue. As the Psalmist (117:2) tells us―weaving together all three attributes into testament of praise: “For God’s kindness has overpowered us, and true is the Lord forever―Hallelujah!”

[1] The verse continues, “[and You will give] hesed to Avraham,” which would itself be a fitting proof text for the first association.

[2] Cf. Ramban for the position that hesed means kindness even in this verse.

Ben Greenfield is the Rabbi of the Greenpoint Shul, in waterfront Brooklyn, and he serves on the Talmud faculty at the Ramaz Upper School.