Yechezkel 18

In this perek, we address the concept of zechus avos . At the start of Michtav M’Eliyahu, Rav Dessler questions the essence of zechus avos; does it not contradict the rule that Hashem will not reward (or punish) someone for the merits (or sins) of his ancestors? We are in this world to work on ourselves and achieve spiritual perfection, so why should we be rewarded for others’ mitzvos?

Rav Dessler answers by re-understanding the concept of zechus avos. Instead of reading zechus avos, it should read zacus avos (the purity of the Avos). As Rav Dessler explains, the concept is that the Avos (being the DNA of Bnei Yisrael) planted certain traits and qualities within the genes of Klal Yisrael. Avraham implanted chesed, bris milah, and a connection to Eretz Yisrael, Yitzchak established a connection to prayer and mesirus nefesh, and Yaakov implanted a connection to Torah. (Even the majority of most irreligious Jews today practice chesed, give their children bris milah, and have some connection to prayer. This is the strength of the inheritance we received from our Avos). Therefore, says Rav Dessler, zechus avos is not that we are simply rewarded for mitzvos which our ancestors performed, but we are tapping into these inherited traits which we are to look after and cultivate.