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Parashat Lech Lecha: The Blessing that Signals the Beginning of the Jewish People by Yaakov Bieler

October 13, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Tanach

                At the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha (Beraishit 12:2-3), in order to provide a Divine inducement for Avraham to abruptly leave his homeland and most of his family members, HaShem blesses him in seven different ways.

Personal Blessings

                Yehuda Kihl[1] explains the contents of these blessings in the following manner:

                 (1) “VeE’escha LeGoi Gadol” (And I will make you into a great nation)

                                —Avraham’s descendents will be numerous;

                (2) “VeAvarechecha” (and I will bless you)

                                —the work of your hands will be exceedingly accomplished;

                (3) “VeAgadla Shemecha” (and I will make your name great)

                                —you will gain fame and renown;

                (4) “VeHeyeh Beracha” (and you will be a blessing)

                                —others who are associated with you will be blessed merely by your proximity to them;             

(5) “VeAvaracha Mevarchecha” (And I will bless those who bless you)

                                —those who will grant you the greatest blessing, i.e., live with you in peace and even   make a covenant with you to that effect, I will bless in turn;

                (6) “U’Mekallcha A’ohr” (and those who curse you , I will curse)

                                —those that treat you badly will be cursed by Me;

       and (7) “VeNivrechu Becha Kol Mishpachot HaAdama” (and they will bless through you all of the families of  the earth)

                                —and all of the families of the earth will cite you as a model of blessing and success, and will bless others by wishing that they resemble you.

Immediate vs. delayed gratification

                Six out of seven of these blessings, in one form or another, already begin to be fulfilled during Avraham’s lifetime:  

                 (1) Avraham has a number of progeny (Yishmael 16:15; Yitzchak 21:2-3);[2]

                (2) The Tora (13:2,6) as well as Eliezer attest to Avraham’s wealth and possessions (24:35);

                (3) Malki Tzedek (14:19-20) and the Hittites (23:6) speak as if Avraham has made a great name for himself;

(4+5) the incentive for Avimelech to wish to make a peace treaty with Avraham appears to be a recognition that his presence in the land has been materially beneficial for the entire area (21:22);

       and (6) both Pharoah (12:17) and Avimelech (20:3) precipitate  supernatural punishments when they attempt to take Sara as a wife. 

               However, the seventh Divine Promise, “VeNivrechu Becha Kol Mishpachot HaAdama”, a blessing that is reiterated by God in 18:18 (“…VeNivrechu Bo Kol Goyai HaAretz” [And  all of the nations of the world will bless by citing his, Avraham’s, example]) appears not to have manifested itself to the point where Avraham could perceive that it had even minimally come true. Pharoah, after recovering from the plague that God sent on Sara’s behalf, not only does not view Avraham and Sara as models of blessing, but summararily sends them out of Egypt. Malki Tzedek blesses Avraham in his presence (14:19-20) but we have no indications that he mentioned him in other contexts. While Avimelech does makes a non-aggression pact with Avraham (21:22 ff.), he might be doing so more out of self-interest than as a result of wishing to model himself and his subjects after Avraham’s example. The compliments uttered by the Hittites (23:3 ff.) in general and Ephron in particular could be viewed as little more than negotiating etiquette, rather than a sincere acknowledgement of Avraham’s special spiritual standing and how his example deserves emulation on the part of all.  If those who are meant to bless by means of Avraham’s example are not political and communal leaders whose self-absorption often prevents them from noticing, let alone acknowledging the virtues of others, we have no recorded evidence that the average individual  verbally cited Avraham as a reference for Divine Blessing either.

Popular Acknowledgement of an Exceptional Life:  When is it a Reasonable Expectation?

                It could be said that the expectation that the nations of the world will see in Avraham the paradigm of Divine Blessing is something that could not be reasonably expected to happen during Avraham’s actual lifespan. Only when people have the opportunity to reflect on the totality of another’s life, something that would most likely happen once that person was no longer alive, would they be in a position where they possibly would be moved to reach the conclusion that the individual had been truly blessed and therefore a proper reference when one wishes to bless others. Yaakov’s declaration (48:20) that Yosef’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe, would be templates for blessings probably did not actually begin to take effect until after they too had departed this world, when a full evaluation of how they had lived could finally be made.  A similar expectation might reasonably apply to the seventh aspect of the blessing that God extended to Avraham. So Avraham during his lifetime could only wonder about the impression that God promises that he will have made upon others.

Non-Verbal Fulfillment?  The Interpretation of Rabbi Moshe Shternbach

                However, according to R. Moshe Shternbach’s[3] interpretation of the seventh component of the blessing at the beginning of Lech Lecha,  Avraham was in fact  able to experience the beginning of its fulfillment during his own lifetime. R. Sternbach understands the implications of this aspect of Avraham’s blessing not so much an explicit verbal approbation of Avraham in particular, but rather the adoption of at least aspects of the overall lifestyle that he publicly leads. The commentator writes,

 “It appears that the purpose of Avraham’s leaving Charan (12:4-5) was to publicize the Existence of God, May His Name be Blessed, and to sanctify His Name in every place. And the meaning of ‘VeNivrechu BeCha’ (“And they will be blessed, i.e., will be positively affected, through you, i.e., your example) is that his (Avraham’s) travels should constitute a sanctification of the Divine Name, that all should see the ethical and moral purity of those who walk in the Way of HaShem. They (the inhabitants of Canaan, and the residents of wherever else Avraham and his entourage would travel, e.g., Egypt, Gerar) would come to bless themselves by striving to become like Avraham, (his household and his students.) And even though the essential fulfillment of the commandment to sanctify God’s Name is in the midst of the Jewish people (VaYikra 22:32), the ancient commentators have emphasized that we must strive to enhance the name of the Jewish people among the nations of the world as well.[4] And this is one of the rationales for the Exile (see R. Elazar’s view cited in Pesachim 87b), i.e., that the nations to which Jews have scattered, will come to recognize and understand the special qualities of a life of observance of Tora and Mitzvot.”

Consequently, instead of Avraham guessing whether people are citing him as an example of the blessed life, he could objectively determine the fulfillment of the blessing by observing the numbers of people who ostensibly have adopted his lifestyle and example, the extent of the influence that his life of “blessing” has had upon others.  The success that Avraham experienced with regard to those that he and Sara were able to educate concerning monotheism (see RaShI on 12:5; 14:14), as well as the results of their efforts connected to the “Eishel” (RaShI on 21:33), could have been understood by them to constitute a fulfillment of the prediction/promise that God made at the beginning of Lech Lecha.   Apparently, the many times that the Tora describes Avraham as “calling on the Name of HaShem” (12:8; 13:4; 21:33) should be assumed to include   a somewhat sympathetic audience that took seriously what he was teaching.

                Bruce Feiler[5] understands in a different sense the manner by which the nations of the world will engage in the act of blessing using Avraham as a model. Feiler strives to view Avraham as a universalistic figure that symbolically unites the three great Western religions, since the patriarch plays a role in each of their theological schemes. And indeed, the name change and the significance attributed to it by the Tora, (17:5) “And I have made you into a father of the multitude of nations”, would appear to lend credence to Feiler’s approach. He writes:

“After promising to fulfill Abraham’s individual need for biological fertility… God offers Abraham the opportunity to provide surrogate, spiritual fertility to the entire world…Abraham is no longer just an individual, with individual needs. He has become God’s proxy on earth. This symbolism is so profound that it reverberates down through the centuries, growing louder with each generation, until it echoes in billions of daily prayers to this day…”

 Therefore, each prayer offered by anyone in the world to a monotheistic deity, starting with Avraham’s own times, but continuing down to today, could be understood as a series of blessings based upon the example that Avraham set and the lessons that he taught throughout his life, culminating eventually with Zecharia’s vision: (14:9, 13) “On that day HaShem will be One and His Name One.” This view understands the act of blessing via Avraham as a lengthy process that constantly undergoes refinement and that will someday result in the universal acknowledgement of the monotheistic beliefs that Avraham began to promulgate during his lifetime.

                In the spirit of the principle “Ma’asei Avot Siman LaBanim” (the experiences/deeds of the forefathers constitute foreshadowing for what their offspring will experience and do),[6]  as well as the adjuration to strive to be considered a student of Avraham,[7] of all of the blessings that he received at the beginning of Lech Lecha, the seventh blessing is the one that we should be most interested in emulating and realizing in our own lifetimes.  The extent to which we can consciously make ourselves exemplary in the eyes of others to the extent that our more admirable traits are considered worthy of their emulation and internalization would constitute a powerful fulfillment of Avraham’s eternal legacy.         

[1] Da’at Mikra, Sefer Beraishit, Vol. 1, Mossad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem, 1997, pp. 319-23.

[2] While Avraham also fathers children with Ketura (25:2-4), they do not figure in the transformation  of Avraham’s offspring into a “great nation.”

[3]Sefer Ta’am VaDa’at, Vol. 1, p. 45.

[4] On Yoma 86a, where examples of Kiddush and Chillul HaShem are linked to manifesting Devarim 6:5, i.e., causing God’s Name to be beloved by others, the term for the others is “Briyot”, entities that have been created, rather than specifically Jews, only one example of many that supports the contention that concepts such as Kiddush HaShem apply also to the general non-Jewish population.

[5] Abraham, A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, William Morrow, New York, 2002, p. 43.

[6] See e.g., Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Lech Lecha, #9.

[7] See e.g., Avot 5:19.

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