This is a small excerpt from the essay on Parshat Lech Lecha, entitled Our Forefathers' Attributes by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler in the book Strive for Truth volume 5.
Our Rabbis say in the Midrash: “The Avot were themselves the Divine Chariot.” Maharal explains: “[The Forefathers are called the Divine Chariot] because through them the Shechina rests on the earth. God’s presence is upon them, and therefore they are a throne and a chariot for the Shechina.”
This saying certainly possesses depths into which we cannot delve, but the little which we can understand may go something like this: The holy Avot merited to attach their whole mind, heart, and being to the Creator. They gave over their whole existence to Hashem, leaving nothing for themselves. All their thoughts and all their deeds, even in matters which seemed to be related to the affairs of everyday life, attested to the holiness of Hashem and the presence of the Shechina. By observing them, one could see what God wanted from human beings. They revealed the Divine will, and that is why God is called “the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Ya’akov.”
It is from this viewpoint that we must examine all that the Torah tells us about the Avot. Every single incident of their lives which the Torah relates to us comes to teach us the highest levels of avodat Hashem.
Maharal adds that by being three in number, the Avot represented the Divine Chariot in all its fullness. Ramban remarks on the same midrash that this refers to the fact that Ya’akov represents the height of truth and Avraham that of hessed, while Yitzhak represents the fullness of the fear of God. And he adds: “The discerning one will understand,” meaning that these three qualities refer to the three sefirot: hessed, gevura, and tiferet. This will be explained later in the essay.
Through this gateway we can attain deep insights into the ways of avodat Hashem in all its purity. This we will now attempt, with the help of Hashem.
Three basic forces exist in man by means of which he can achieve his spiritual goals. Each one is different in its origin and character.
1. HESSED. Through the power of loving kindness, a person turns his efforts towards his fellow beings and tries to make them happy and influence them for good to the best of his ability. Elsewhere we have called this “the power of giving.”
2. THE FEAR OF GOD. In contrast to hessed, in which a person turns his attention chiefly outwards, with the fear and awe of God, a person turns inwards on himself. His chief concern is that his actions will meet the strict criteria of the Divine will.
3. TRUTH. Searching for truth clarifies for a person the right way in avodat Hashem. This enables him to avoid turning either to the right or to the left. One who is guided by the desire for truth will be less likely to fall into the extremes of hessed and yir’ah and will thus avoid their negative aspects, as described below under the subtitle “Extremes”.
We can also see these three qualities correspond to the “three things on which the world stands: Torah, the Temple service, and deeds of love.” Torah corresponds to truth (and the sefira tiferet); the Temple service corresponds to sacrifice, negation of self; fear of God (the sefira gevurah) and deeds of love are, of course, hessed. The three character traits which “banish man from the world” are the opposite of these. Jealousy is the opposite of hessed: lust is the opposite of gevura (which, in essence, is the conquest of the yetzer), while kavod (prestige-seeking) is the opposite of truth, for it is well-known that all the honor and prestige of the world is falsehood and bluff.
Generally a person’s character is based mainly on one of the three dominant forces we discussed above. We usually find that all a person’s thoughts and deeds are influenced and guided by his particular dominating quality.
When a person decides to devote his life to the service of Hashem, his first act should be to discover and recognize his dominating quality. He should then try to develop it and perfect it and remain true to it to the best of his ability. But he should not be satisfied with this. There are other qualities hidden within him, and to reach his full potential he must try to develop these, too.
THE PERFECTION OF THE AVOT: AVRAHAM
In a similar manner, though on an immeasurably higher level than we can comprehend, were the qualities of our holy Forefathers. Each of them reached perfection according to his dominant character trait and then went on to develop the other two qualities as well, bringing them to perfection under the guidance of the dominant quality. By these means, each one succeeded in completing his portion in the creation. As the Zohar states: “Each one of the Avot knew the Holy One Blessed be He through his own lens.” That is, through the individual dominant quality of his mind.
Before God revealed Himself to Avraham in Haran, he had already reached a very high degree of hessed on his own. This is alluded to in the Torah by the words “the souls which they had acquired (literally: made) in Haran,” which refer to the men and women Sara and Avraham had brought near to the service of God. There could be no greater hessed than this, since by this they gave those men and women the greatest good in this world and in the next.
Almost all the tests which Avraham had to face after this were in the direction of gevura. The command “leave your home” meant to leave his father alone in his old age in order to fulfill God’s command. The battle with the four kings was certainly an act of gevura. So was brit mila, which separated him from the rest of mankind and might have impeded his successful work in bringing the people close to Hashem.
All these tests were extremely difficult for him because they were in opposition to the quality of hessed which was natural to him. But it was by this opposition and the work entailed in overcoming it that he grew in spiritual status to an incomparable degree. What he had done previously, guided by his own individual quality, he now did out of a much more profound recognition of and trust in the Almighty.
The banishment of Yishmael and Hagar by the command of God went even more against his inborn quality. [Indeed the Midrash describes this as “the worst thing that had happened to Avram in his whole life until the test of the ‘Akeda. When he had successfully withstood this test, he was acclaimed by Hashem as “one who fears God.”
Thus Avraham, despite his inborn midda of hessed, acquired perfection in the quality of fear, in its highest sense. He had shown himself able and ready to accept the yoke of God’s kingdom without any reservations whatsoever. All his possessions, spiritual as well as material, were nothing in his eyes before the divine majesty of Hashem.
A person whose main quality I hessed is in danger that, in his yearning to give to others, he may spend more money than he can afford. Then, he will borrow from others and spend it in turn. Eventually it will be found that his excessive desire to do hessed was counterproductive, for it led him to cause others loss because he could not repay his debts. There is also the possibility that he will eventually “be merciful to the cruel,” leading to “cruelty to the merciful,” as we find in the example of Shaul Ha-melech. There is also another more insidious danger that, by becoming accustomed to acceding to everyone’s requests, he may then come to accede to the demands of the yetzer hara. This is why certain forbidden marriages are referred to as hessed. (The whole institution of marriage is, of course, a great hessed. Through it, people bestow a great bounty on mankind by allowing a new generation to emerse. But when this deviates from the bounds set down by the Creator, by a person acting simply to gratify his desires or by way of sin, God forbid, then it is called “the hessed of defilement.”) Such is the lot of hessed, which is not limited by the quality of gevura.
Similarly, the quality of gevura—even “the gevura of holiness”—if taken to extremes is liable to minimize a person’s actions, even his good actions, as we saw above.
A person whose main quality is gevura, unrestricted by considerations of hessed and emet (truth), is liable to tend to other excesses. By concentrating too much on himself, such a person is likely to minimize the importance of other people. He may then fall under the power of “taking.” Or, in addition to controlling himself, he may come to dominate others and fall into the abyss of arrogance and hatred. This is the “gevura of uncleanliness” indeed. But this is what is liable to happen to gevura when it is not controlled and guided by hessed and the love of other people.
But the quality of emet unites hessed and gevura. When a person seeks the truth—the point of truth in his heart—in every problem and decision, he is freed from the danger of excess in either direction. The desire for truth cannot lead to any unworthy action, as the other qualities can. On the contrary, truth will bring a person to the only correct amalgamation of hessed and gevura in one organic and harmonious whole.
The person of truth strives to find the precise point of truth in every problem and decision. This corresponds to Torah, which is “a Torah of truth.” A person who strives for truth will never go wrong. On the contrary, the search for truth will bring a person to the correct balance between hessed and gevura. This is tiferet—glory—which is the harmonious union of opposites.