First Blessing 23: Avot
I would like to bring to your attention a Gemara in Shabbat (30a).
Rebbe Tanchum opened and said: You Solomon, where is your great wisdom? Where is your common sense? It’s not enough for you that what you say contradicts your father, but you also contradict things that you yourself have said. Where do we find this? David your father said in Psalm 115, ‘Those who are dead cannot praise God.’ And you said, in chapter 4 of Ecclesiastes, ‘I praise those who are dead more than those who are alive.’ You contradict your father. But not only that, later, in the ninth chapter, you contradict yourself when you say, ‘A live dog is better than a dead lion.’ So you see that being alive is better than being dead.
This is not a difficulty. When David said that the dead are not able to praise God, this is what he meant to say: A person should toil in Torah and mitzvot before he dies, because once he dies, he no longer learns Torah or performs mitzvot. And therefore, God’s presence does not expand through this person. Rabbi Yochanan says: What does it mean in Psalms 88 when it says, ‘In those that are dead there is freedom?’ Once a person dies, he is free from Torah and mitzvot.
When Solomon said, ‘I praise those who are dead more than those who are alive,’ he meant that when the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf in the desert, Moses stood before the Holy One Blessed be He, and said many prayers and supplications, and God did not respond. However, when he mentioned Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, he was answered. Then who is better? Those who are living, or those who are dead? – Those who are dead. That’s why Solomon said what he did. There is an element in prayer in which you call not onto your own merit, but that of those who preceded you. You don’t come to God saying, ‘I have to show You why I deserve to pray to You. Who am I to pray to You?’ You don’t have to say this. We are children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That’s why we can stand before God.
There are times when I go to visit great, great rabbis in Jerusalem. I always get to cut in front of the line. Why is that? Not because I am anyone special, but because I mention that I am Rabbi Ruderman’s grandson. “Oh, you are Rabbi Ruderman’s grandson? You shouldn’t have to wait in line!” You know, I just happen to mention it. That’s exactly what we do when we mention Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “Well, I happen to be from the Abramson family.” That’s what it means. You come to God and say, “Remember my grandfather Abraham? He was a good buddy of yours.” This is all so that when you begin your Shemoneh Esreh, you don’t feel unempowered. You are empowered. There is tremendous power. I can’t take credit for anything my grandfather did. But when people hear my grandfather’s name, they say, “Oh, it’s his grandson.” It’s true.