In kabbalistic thought, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are associated, respectively, with the divine attributes of lovingkindness, strength, and truth. The prooftext for these correspondences, which eventually became commonplace, is Micah 7:20, which begins (addressing God), “You will give truth to Jacob, lovingkindness to Abraham.” But, Ben Greenfield notes, Genesis shows Jacob as practicing deceit: first by disguising himself as his brother Esau to take his blessing, and then by outmaneuvering his avaricious father-in-law Laban. Passivity, even weakness—rather than strength—seem to characterize Isaac. And Abraham does at times display kindness, but:
Abraham’s full story is not at all defined by “kindness” and often runs directly counter to it. How is Avraham the epitome of lovingkindness in raising the blade over his bound son? Where is the lovingkindness in allowing Sarah to torment the lowly maidservant Hagar (Genesis 16:6) or in exiling Hagar and her young child Ishmael into the blazing desert (Genesis 21:14)? . . . The Abraham we know from the actual Torah exemplifies any number of virtues, but lovingkindness is not particularly high on that list.
Greenfield seeks a solution to this paradox by taking a closer look at one of the earliest texts to make these associations, an addendum to the Zohar known as the Zohar Ḥadash (“new Zohar”), first published in the 16th century:
Nothing in the Zohar Ḥadash 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.
Perhaps to “know God through the looking glass” of a virtue means to struggle with that virtue. It is possible that Zohar Ḥadash’s intention in this passage is to highlight Jacob’s tendency toward guile (Genesis 27:35 and 34:13) and Isaac’s frequent positions of impotence. This “struggle” read is bolstered by the Zohar Ḥadash’s biblical prooftext of Micah 7:20, a verse that speaks of Jacob and Abraham lacking their respective attributes and which appears in a passage about Jewish spiritual failure.
Indeed, virtues like kindness, strength, and truth cannot possibly be embodied completely by any mortal being.